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Pelicans secure first play-in tournament trip in franchise history with 123-109 victory over Kings

Such an incredible accomplishment for a team that began this season with a 3-16 record!

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday’s matchup could have gone any number of ways.

Jonas Valanciunas was unavailable, the Pelicans had been on the West Coast for over a week and the Kings likely wanted to leave a positive lasting impression playing in front of their home crowd for a final time in this campaign. However, New Orleans overcame a choppy first half, and while not playing their best brand of basketball, posted a milestone 123-109 victory.

Game #79 on the 2021-22 schedule will now forever be tied to the New Orleans franchise securing its first-ever play-in tournament bid, with a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

“This road trip was really important for us and to go three out of four games, for our group, that’s big time,” Willie Green said. “We’ve been through it all season where we just progressed and tried to improve in every practice, every shoot around, every film session. It’s beautiful to see that we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to have an extended season.”

Don’t overlook the sheer amount of determination, hard work and improvement it took for the team to get to this point.

The Pelicans began the season with only three wins in their first 19 games. After a double-digit loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in New Orleans, the Pelicans had the second-worst record in the league.

Locally, nationally, everyone counted them out, but the team’s resolve never melted away. More importantly, they got better and better.

Since the dreadful start, the Pelicans have compiled a 32-28 record. Over this span, the offense has ranked 13th-best (113.5 ORTG) across the league, and the defense, 11th (111.6 DRTG). But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride — adversity still continued to rear its head every so often.

Brandon Ingram has missed 17 games since the turnaround began. The team’s three-point shooting has consistently remained a weakness. The coaching staff had to integrate three new players after the front office dealt Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and others to Portland before the trade deadline. And we haven’t seen Zion Williamson register a single minute yet this season.

“We’ve learned how to be a solid team,” Green said. “Before, a lot of new faces, our youth was getting the best of us, some injuries, but we just continued to grow together. And here we are with a great opportunity in front of us. We couldn’t be more proud of our group, our guys, our staff, our medical team, our performance team, our management — everybody involved. It’s just been a fun journey. We know we have more work to do, but we’re going to celebrate it tonight.”

Definitely well deserved, coach. Salute, guys!

The victory over the Kings can be considered a microcosm of the season. The Pelicans showed some solid glimpses in the first half. However, they were clinging to a 60-57 lead at halftime against a team missing its two best players in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.

The Pelicans had let the available Kings pick apart their defense too easily. Case in point, Damian Jones scored 15 first-half points on 6 of 7 shooting from the field. For the remainder of the game, though, New Orleans played at a level above their competition.

They set the tone right out of the locker room, hitting back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers. After that 9-0 run, the Pelicans enjoyed a double-digit lead for the majority of the second half.

CJ McCollum was his ever-steady self, finishing with a line of 23 points, four rebounds, five assists and four steals. When the offense was in need of rescue on a possession, he was there to bail out his teammates.

That said, Jaxson Hayes probably deserves more of the spotlight for having a career night.

The third year foward/center out of the University of Texas scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Both marks tied career personal bests, yet watching his performance was far more rewarding than reading through the box score.

Hayes was a monster on the glass. But that’s often expected of players towering at seven-foot heights. What separates him from most other bigs though, Jaxson knocked down several 3-pointers and also finished two transition breaks with Euro-steps in splitting Sacramento’s defense.

Such evidence and a showcase of his ability was sorely lacking in all three areas for the first few months of this season. No one’s improved more on this roster since game #1.

“Growth, maturity, understanding how to stick with it when things don’t necessarily go your way to start,” Green said. “He was fantastic tonight.”

Brandon Ingram, who struggled with his perimeter shot, finished with a very respectable line of 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

Herb Jones was tenacious as ever defensively, swiping four steals.

Off the bench, Devonte’ Graham and Trey Murphy each amassed 14 points. They combined for seven of the team’s 12 made 3-pointers, with the rookie not missing a shot from beyond the arc in four attempts.

Another player that must be highlighted in greater detail though is Willy Hernangomez. The backup center started in place of the injured Valanciunas and wound up with a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double.

If you’ve watched Hernangomez all season, this isn’t a surprise. He often produces when given the minutes, but it’s not a given Green will call his number.

For instance, Willy hadn’t logged a single second on this four-game road trip until tonight. Yet he seamlessly slid right into a big role and was a key factor in the team’s win. It’s beyond rare to see someone as capable carry out his duty at a moment’s notice, all the while wearing the biggest smile in front of teammates every single day.

I’m happy for everyone inside that Pelicans locker room for clinching a berth to the play-in but for no one more so than Willy. His minutes are never guaranteed. He’s a journeyman who has never experienced an NBA postseason. And what you probably didn’t know, this moment means the world to a genuine competitor.

“This is an amazing opportunity coming from Real Madrid,” Hernangomez said. “I won a lot of titles, played in a lot of big games, was a part of the national team — won a world championship and was in two Olympics. You know, I’m a winner. I want to win, I want to compete so to never make the playoffs here is something that was a disappointment. One of my goals is to win a championship in this league.

“I think we have a good opportunity to make a good run at the playoffs. We trust in each other and right now we’re right there. There’s {hopefully} going to be two games — two finals for us. Hopefully, we will play the first game at home in New Orleans with everybody. There’s going to be a beautiful moment and hopefully a beautiful way to keep moving forward.”

If you’re a fan of basketball in New Orleans, you should be as happy for these Pelicans as any Chris Paul or Anthony Davis-led squad. They’ve overcome an incredible amount of adversity. There’s so many wonderful individual stories that deserve to be told over and over. And now this group sits on the precipice of taking us on a ride that no one dreamt possible several months ago.

Let’s Geaux!

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.