Brandon Ingram has dreamt of this since he first set foot in the league.
In the Pelicans’ 125-114 win over the Suns, Ingram shined like a superstar, leading his team to an impressive road victory over the best team in basketball and evening the series at 1-1.
“Six years,” Ingram joked about how long he’s waited for this moment. “No, throughout this year I had confidence we would be here. I didn’t know what it would look like, but we continued to get better every single day, with Willie being positive every single day and helping guys and teaching guys every single day.
“I just feel like it’s our time. It’s our time to continue get better, continue to get better for this organization, continue to build for next game. We have a really, really good group of guys who want to get better. So, to be on this stage, and continuing to have success, is great for us.”
With the Pelicans trailing 61-56 at halftime, Ingram set the tone out of the locker room, scoring 14 points and dishing out five assists. He continued to cook in the fourth quarter, so much so, Willie Green said in postgame that he stopped calling plays and allowed Ingram to run the whole show.
Ingram, his teammates and all loyal fans will never forget his first career playoff win: 37 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and three 3-pointers. He made nearly two-thirds of his field goal attempts, three-quarters of his 3-point looks and didn’t miss a single free throw attempt in eight tries.
That’s as good as it gets. However, he was far from alone in carrying the Pelicans to their first postseason victory in four years.
Jaxson Hayes, who was coming off three straight quiet games, created immense momentum. He singlehandedly sent the Suns defense reeling in the Pelicans’ decisive 34-22 third quarter.
Within a span of four minutes, Hayes tallied three transition dunks, catching balls in stride like a wide receiver and finishing them strongly, and one ridiculous rejection.
“The biggest thing with Jax, like, I can’t say enough positives about Jaxson,” Larry Nance said postgame. “The Spurs game, he had a rough one. The Clippers game, he had a rough one. Game one, didn’t get to impact the game, didn’t get to do a whole lot. And tonight, the way he responded, itt seems like a little thing on the outside looking in, but that’s so hard. That’s so hard to stay mentally locked in.”
To the dismay of many, Willie Green didn’t make any rotation changes after game 1, choosing instead to trust everyone who had helped get the team to this position. That decision turned out to be golden, along with every other button he pushed.
However, not all of the head coach’s adjustments looked positive right out of the gates.
Devin Booker, who was coming off a fantastic game 1, cannibalized New Orleans’ defense in the first half. He was sitting on 31 points after knocking down 7 of 10 three-pointers before intermission!
The second half, though, was an entirely different story for Phoenix’s young star. He failed to score a single point in over seven minutes of action in the third quarter, but worse, he was forced from the game with a hamstring injury after trying to stop Hayes on the following fast break.
Booker failed to return. There’s been no update as to his availability for the rest of this series. Before he left, though, the Pelicans had already grabbed the momentum, outscoring the Suns 21-13, and were leading 77-74.
To be fair, New Orleans’ offense was unstoppably throughout the entire second half. The Pelicans scored 69 points. They shot 67.5% from the field and 72.7 from 3-point range. They had 22 assists against eight turnovers.
Booker’s defense wouldn’t have remotely changed any of this.
Before the New Orleans eruption, the first half was extremely competitive. Both teams played with great physicality, unlike a few days ago where the Pelicans didn’t seem ready for playoff basketball.
Ingram was aggressive early and scored 11 points in the first quarter. Although he added none in the second, CJ McCollum (eight points) and Nance (seven points) picked up the slack and there was perhaps not a more pivotal moment than the close of the first half.
With 2:27 left, the Suns led 54-46. It appeared the Pelicans were on the verge of another double-digit deficit at halftime. But then two 3s by McCollum and one by Trey Murphy prevented any further collapse.
Similar to Ingram, McCollum nearly finished with a triple-double, going for 23 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. He hit 6 of 10 for 3-point range.
Jonas Valanciunas posted a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds, Hayes had nine points, three rebounds and two blocks, and Nance chipped in 13 points, six rebounds and two assists off the bench.
The Pelicans’ rookies were vital to the victory as well, which begs the question, did New Orleans walk away the biggest winners from the 2021 NBA draft?
This question deserves to be researched more fully when time allows after the season, but one thing is for sure, the Pelicans wouldn’t be in these playoffs without the contributions of Murphy, Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado.
Now the series moves to New Orleans, with games 3 and 4 set for Friday and Sunday inside the Smoothie King Center. It’s going to be sight to behold. The players are all excited and can’t wait.
It’s wild to contemplate that in a previous reality, this first round would remain a figment of imagination.
If the NBA had failed to implement the Play-In Tournament ahead of the Orlando bubble or decided against bringing it back in successive seasons, this passage of time would have never occurred. New Orleans would be deprived of many wonderful memories. Ingram would still be pondering on what it would be like to experience his first trip to the playoffs.
Anyways, just some food for thought — see you all inside the thunderous Smoothie King Center for game 3. With the Pelicans drawing first blood in winning a road game, we’ve got a series!