The first words that came to mind when tonight’s final buzzer sounded were that of Al Michael’s iconic call of the United States’ triumphant victory over the heavily-favored Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
Following a 34-6 run by the Clippers, no one — and I mean no one — believed the New Orleans Pelicans were going to bounce back from a 75-62 deficit with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
With a minute left in the first half, the Pelicans led by 15 points. They were in complete control. Nine minutes later on the game clock, they trailed by 13. New Orleans fans had to be shell-shocked — I know I was.
Tyronn Lue was even receiving flowers from LeBron James on Twitter not long thereafter while more than 10 minutes were left in the game.
However, however, after Los Angeles scored the first three points of the fourth quarter, it was all New Orleans after that. Trailing 87-74, the Pelicans closed the game out on a 31-14 run to shock NBA viewers on TNT, winning by a final score of 105-101.
With this victory, their second of this Play-in Tournament, the Pelicans earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They’ll start a first round series against the Suns on Sunday, April 18, 2022.
The driving impetus behind Friday night’s improbable comeback? Willie Green’s speech to his squad at the end of the third quarter stirred his players’ souls. They then carried out their fighting orders to a tee.
Over the remaining 10:36, the Pelicans made 12 of 20 field goals. They hit 4 of 6 from three-point range. They had eight assists against zero turnovers. They had eight second chance points to the Clippers’ two. They scored six more points in the paint.
On the flip side, the Pelicans held the Clippers to just five makes in 20 shot attempts.
New Orleans executed ... fought ... never quit.
The Pelicans’ Won’t Bow Down motto has never felt more appropriate than it did during tonight’s amazing turnaround.
“The biggest point in all of this, and I talked to the team about it, is keeping God first in everything we do and giving him the glory when we have an opportunity, especially on this platform,” Green said. “That’s what it was. Just having faith in each other, staying connected, knowing that we took their best shot. We’re only down 10 points heading into the fourth quarter. Guys just fought. We’re so proud of that type of effort and that win tonight was big-time.”
It took more than a quarter for the Pelicans’ coaching staff to devise a successful lineup against Tyronn Lue’s small-ball adjustment. After Robert Covington replaced Ivica Zubac out of halftime, the Pelicans stayed big, but that didn’t work. Neither did turning to large wings in Tony Snell and Naji Marshall.
Over their scintillating stretch to the finish line, only six players saw predominant action on the court: the team’s two biggest stars, the three rookies and Larry Nance Jr.
So many deserve praise, but we must start with Nance. The six-year power forward/small-ball center nearly had a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds) at halftime. He finished with his best box score since donning a New Orleans uniform: 14 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He made seven of eight field goal attempts.
“Larry was a monster,” Green said. “We kind of figured it was going to be a Larry game with the way they play. Ty Lue’s adjustments is to go small. Larry has the capability of guarding a number of perimeter guys. He’s big, he’s strong, he can rebound the ball. You guys saw it tonight, he had 16 rebounds. That was huge for us. We don’t win that game without his effort.”
Speaking of perfection, Brandon Ingram missed only one of his first 10 shots. He did everything he could to set the tone early, pouring in 16 first-quarter points to propel the Pelicans a 30-22 lead after one.
Ingram looked the part of a franchise player. During the Pels’ fourth-quarter comeback, he didn’t miss a shot from the field. He was the most effective stabilizing force from start to finish. That’s what elite players do, rising to the occasion when the highest of pressures demand it.
“Brandon Ingram is The Truth,” Green said. “He just brought it. He had that look in his eye from the time we got on the plane. Shootaround, he’s been locked in. He has been waiting for this moment, for this type of moment.
“His preparation is off the charts. This summer, he went six, seven hours a day. He believes in his teammates. He’s just all you want and more as a player and a person.”
For a player that’s never been to the playoffs, Brandon Ingram’s line was elite: 30 points, six rebounds and six assists. He made two-thirds of his shots in his biggest test to date as a professional.
Three players appeared fully in the last 10:36 of the game: Nance, Ingram and ... Trey Murphy III.
In the first half, the rookie out of the University of Virginia didn’t score. His only box score stats were one rebound and one assist. He didn’t make much of an impact; thus, maybe that’s why Green opted to give the seldom-used Snell a chance. But when Murphy finally entered in the third quarter at the 4:03 mark, he never left the floor again. Rightfully so. Trey was brilliant.
With Nance controlling the glass and Ingram putting pressure on the L.A. defense from the midrange in, Murphy was the floor spacer that New Orleans so desperately needed to make a big charge.
Over the final 16:03 of the game, Murphy produced 14 points, four rebounds and four 3s. He was exactly the force so many of us believed has been lying in wait for such a moment.
CJ McCollum didn’t have his normal touch from the outside (1-7 3PTA), but he still managed to score 19 points and dish out three assists. The Pelicans wouldn’t have won this game without those contributions.
New Orleans’ other two rookies didn’t post impressive stat lines, but Herb Jones (seven points, seven rebounds) and Jose Alvarado (four points, four rebounds, three assists) brought their usual unrelenting intensity.
The lights never got too bright. Playing in front of a hostile crowd, they didn’t blink. With the Pelicans needing toughness and defense to match the Clippers’ energy, Jones and Alvarado came up aces.
To be fair, this wild rollercoaster ride that was this game — and hey, NBA, let’s make sure the Play-in tournament remains a thing going forward — took some time to process after its conclusion. Although I was definitely excited about the outcome, the mental fatigue was real. To go from such a high to the lowest of lows to then an even higher high, well, it can leave the brain scrambled after feeling every emotion possible.
Once the fog finally lifted, it became abundantly clear: these New Orleans Pelicans have proven since the All-Star break that they deserve to be in the 2022 playoffs. They’ve had a variety of important wins, but none more so than the ones that came against the Spurs and Clippers in these last three days.
The Pelicans are continuing to grow, both within the locker room and inside fans’ hearts like, dare I say, Kendrick Perkins. Every positive step taken now is only going to help in all aspects down the road. Sure, history doesn’t favor eight seeds, but New Orleans is in the postseason!
This is one hell of an accomplishment that’s going to remain embedded in these players’ cerebral cortices!
No one thought the playoffs was possible 19 games into this season, and certainly the same belief existed tonight after sitting through the Clippers’ 34-6 run. So yeah, I can’t wait for Game 1 on Sunday. Who knows what’s next? But I bet it’s going to be a blast ... like maybe watching Jose Alvarado do his best to frustrate Chris Paul!