The first play-in tournament appearance in franchise history was a resounding success.
The New Orleans Pelicans dominated the action for much of the game, building a 21-point lead within the first minute of the fourth quarter, before needing to diffuse a late San Antonio charge for a 113-103 victory over the Spurs.
The ovation at the finish of the National Anthem strongly hinted the Smoothie King Center was more than eager to fill the role of the team’s sixth man. The fans would go on to hold up their part of the bargain thanks in large part to the Pelicans providing a seemingly endless supply of fireworks.
“It was incredible,” Willie Green said in postgame. “Our fans were amazing. It was so loud in there we could barely hear each other, but that was playoff-atmosphere type of basketball. We’re proud of our guys. They responded. They played hard. They competed for 48 minutes.
“That’s a tough San Antonio team. They don’t quit. Those guys keep coming. They keep playing hard. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined. That’s a big-time win for our program.”
Green’s reaction upon exiting the floor at game’s end left no doubt as to the significance of this victory.
Beginning the season with a lone win in the first 13 games on the schedule, the locker room could have very easily let go of the rope. Instead, the entire group persevered through the rockiest of journeys, believing in the New Orleans head coach’s message of better days ahead.
Green’s promise soon came to fruition. After posting a 3-16 record out of the gates, the Pelicans went 33-30 the rest of the way. More than three quarters of the schedule says they’re a deserving playoff team.
Wednesday night’s positive play-in result only strengthened that belief.
Following a fast 8-2 start by the Spurs, Brandon Ingram was the first of New Orleans’ potent trio of scorers to get to work. He poured in 11 points in the first quarter. The All-Star forward normally likes to get into a rhythm from the midrange area, but he was narrowly focused on attacking the rim, as evidenced by a poster dunk over Zach Collins.
Witness everyone jumping out of their seats including Zion Williamson. That was a prominent moment in this game. Countless more would follow.
CJ McCollum grabbed the reins next as BI took his first rest, putting together a perfect display of shotmaking. From the last minute of the first frame to halftime, the point guard didn’t miss a shot. He went 8 for 8 from the field, 2 for 2 from behind the arc and 5 for 5 from the free throw line.
The star acquisition at the trade deadline entered the locker room with 27 points, single-handedly outscoring all five of the Spurs’ starters.
In addition to the production of Ingram and McCollum, Jose Alvarado’s 10 points (3 for 3 from three-point range) off the bench were just as important in building the Pelicans’ 61-50 halftime lead.
Interestingly, Alvarado’s proficiency shooting the rock in his pregame workout was noticeably high. He knocked down just about every attempt that I watched. Sure enough, that focus translated to the actual contest.
Before leaving the floor for intermission, Herb Jones ended the first half with an exclamation block, staring deep into Keldon Johnson’s soul for a split second. A message was sent and received. Notice the light shove from Jacob Poeltl as Jones began to walk towards the tunnel on the Pelicans’ side of the floor.
Do not bring that weak stuff into Herb Jones' fishing cabin. pic.twitter.com/wvjvwwhOel— Christian Clark (@cclark_13) April 14, 2022
After winning the first two quarters, the Pelicans also claimed the third. Jones, who harassed Dejounte Murray into a 5 for 19 shooting performance, added several three-pointers in the frame. But, of course, fans lives for highlights of Herb’s defense.
Have you ever seen a block followed by a steal mere seconds later? Now you can say you have, courtesy of a rookie who very much deserves to be named to one of the two 2022 NBA All-Defensive Teams for his consistently stellar work on that end of the floor.
Herb Jones is just everywhere, watch him recover to block Poeltl's shot off icing the screen, then stealing the pass to the corner and it would have been a great highlight on the other end but you know the take foul pandemic continues pic.twitter.com/5RKDWBCkSb— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) April 14, 2022
Jones was not alone in exhibiting some impressive exploits out of halftime. Jonas Valanciunas got in on the act, taking his turn in carrying New Orleans’ offense. The center scored 12 points in the frame, propelling the Pelicans to a 92-75 lead.
San Antonio would whittle a 21-point deficit down to just six in the fourth, but three consecutive makes by New Orleans pushed the difference back into double-digit territory.
SKC faithful were never asked to fret over the outcome again and joyous dancing soon ensued.
“We will celebrate tonight and tomorrow morning we will get up and start preparing for the Clippers,” Green said. “We have a good idea of who they are as a team, but it’s going to be another extremely difficult challenge for us. We just have to get ready.”
One game separates the Pelicans from the 2022 playoffs. That contest will be played on Friday, April 15, with tip-off scheduled for 9:00 p.m. against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But for now, relish all the performances in the win over the Spurs.
McCollum led the way with 32 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three triples, Brandon Ingram had 27 points, five rebounds and five assists, and Jonas Valanciunas added 22 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.
Herb Jones filled up the boxscore with 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two threes.
Jose Alvarado led the reserves with 12 points, three assists and three treys, with Larry Nance chipping in eight rebounds and Naji Marshall not missing from anywhere en route to six points and five rebounds.
“This is the start of something special, for sure,” McCollum said. “You see the energy, feel the energy. My mother’s in town; I have had some family come into town. When they go out to eat, and things of that nature, you can kind of feel the city is starting to be excited about basketball, as they should. There’s a lot of talent here and we’re hungry. We’re playing the game the right way. There’s going to be a lot of winning in our future.”
New Orleans has been a basketball city for a long time. But now consistent winning sits on the horizon. Climb on board, NBA world.