The New Orleans Pelicans season came to a final conclusion on Thursday evening, but the predominant feeling in the arena immediately after the 115-109 loss to the Phoenix Suns was one of great appreciation.
Brandon Ingram was the first player off the court, this postseason meant so much to him. He put forth incredible performances the entire series and I’m so glad he got the opportunity to showcase his talent on this stage. #Pelicans pic.twitter.com/GCU36QEKll— Erin Summers (@ErinESummers) April 29, 2022
The Smoothie King Center faithful gave their team a standing ovation despite the playoff exit. And the cheering and clapping continued as players and coaches began to exit the court.
Even to the most casual observers, there’s an understanding that the future is incredibly bright in New Orleans. We were reminded of that fact at so many turns following the 3-16 start out of the gates. The Pelicans could have folded after any one of those early losses. NBA fans and media fully expected it, burying the team thoroughly with their sharp words.
But the Pelicans chose to fight through all of the adversity. And then fight some more.
That effort led to New Orleans stabilizing their season, playing above .500 ball for the remainder of the schedule. During that 33-30 run, the Pelicans showed massive improvement. They posted a number of impressive wins, but none were as rewarding as beating the Lakers on three separate occasions post-All-Star break to claw their way into the Play-In Tournament — and help knock the Purple and Gold out.
The Pelicans proceeded to end the playoff aspirations of the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers in the span of three days as well, surviving the elimination nature that is Play-In basketball.
Despite this electric run, most elected to ignore the Pelicans before the start of the first round, predicating a non-competitive series against the Suns.
New Orleans took a couple of games, but it could have been more had Phoenix been a little more ordinary in certain instances. Game’s 1 and 3 saw Chris Paul lift the Suns to victory behind two jaw-dropping fourth-quarter performances. Game 5 was the best contest of Mikal Bridges’ career. And this game 6? Well, it took a herculean effort by CP3 to eliminate this eighth seed from the playoffs.
Actually, herculean probably doesn’t fully encapsulate Thursday’s performance. Paul was flat-out perfect. Check the box score. He didn’t miss a single field goal or free throw attempt in 36 minutes on his march to 33 points and a place in the record books.
The Pelicans were bamboozled four times, and it required the best shooting game in playoff history to eliminate them. You don’t hang your heads after that. No one did.
Of course, there were some feelings of disappointment, but that’s because this New Orleans locker room cares so deeply. Jose Alvarado and Brandon Ingram had tears in their eyes in speaking to reporters postgame because they wanted to go back to work tomorrow. Willie Green let some raw emotions spill immediate after the final buzzer had sounded and he couldn’t wait to leave the media room tonight because of how difficult this series was on him personally.
But the head coach left with his head held high.
“I said it before, our future is bright,” Green said. “We’ll soak this up. A number of things, the playoff experience was great for us, the elimination games, the Play-In experience and leading up to that. And then this loss, we feel it. Like I told our guys in the locker room, our work this summer is going to determine what happens next season, and we’ll be back in the gym getting in, getting ready.”
The Pelicans bonded together as the season progressed, accomplished a great number of things and learned what the playoffs are all about. Had the execution been just a little sharper at times, the team would be on a flight to Phoenix for game 7 against the best regular season team in basketball.
The undeniable feeling is that sustainable success sits just around the corner after a critically important foundation was built. Green and his coaching staff displayed the necessary mettle to teach and lead the locker room. Brandon Ingram took the proverbial next step, and in these playoffs, carried the team like a superstar in their victories. CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. proved vital additions. And those three wonderful rookies, Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy just ooze so much heart and game.
There’s a legitimately good team here. Fans recognize this, but as the season unfolded, a particular fondness grew for the cast. The players are amazingly easy to root for. Their individual stories are wonderful. Watching them perform on a night-to-night basis was such a treat. They flashed the highest of characters, showed a willingness to run through brick walls, and loved New Orleans as much as it loved them.
An exciting era is upon us. All eyes are now eagerly focused on the future, dreaming hard about what this group will look like when Zion Williamson joins the mix. These Pelicans are already thinking about facing the Suns in the playoffs again.
“Hopefully, we get to see them again.”
Don’t bet against that scenario from happening.
Thank you for a special season, New Orleans Pelicans. We’ll see you soon!