New Orleans needed a playoff-clinching victory to get back into the postseason picture, but instead they watched their once 9.5 point lead try to dwindle down in the fourth quarter before finally escaping with an improbable win over Los Angeles.
7:00 A.M. ET
ESPN’s Andrew Lopez
Willie Green, the coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, was attempting to figure out what would work in Friday night’s play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Green, a first-year head coach, was going head-to-head with Ty Lue, a championship-winning coach who is regarded as one of the greatest in the league by some. When New Orleans saw a 16-point first-half advantage vanish into a 10-point Clippers lead by the conclusion of the third quarter, the heavyweight bout, as Green dubbed it, was tipping in Lue’s and the Clippers’ favor.
Green and the Pelicans struck haymaker after haymaker when he and his team needed it most, with Jonas Valanciunas scoring the last knockout blow with 12.6 seconds left, slamming it home and earning the Pelicans a 105-101 win.
The No. 8 seed New Orleans Pelicans progress from the play-in round to meet the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. Their first-round series starts on Sunday.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Pelicans are just the fourth club in NBA history to open a season with a record of 1-12 or worse and still reach the playoffs, following the Suns, 1996-97 (0-13), 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers (1-12), and 1967-68 Chicago Bulls (1-12).
The Pelicans led by ten points at halftime, but the Clippers swiftly reversed the tide with a 34-6 run in the last minute of the second quarter and early in the third quarter.
Los Angeles started slowly after discovering earlier in the day that seven-time All-Star Paul George had been put on health and safety procedures. The Clippers were already missing Kawhi Leonard, who has yet to appear in a game this season.
Lue’s side, on the other hand, did not give up. In the third quarter, he switched to Robert Covington instead of Ivica Zubac, and New Orleans couldn’t respond.
“He was adjusting,” Green said. “He pulled off his bigs.” We were attempting to acclimate to their presence. We were unable to make it work. We reintroduced our bigs. That also didn’t work for us.
“So we started shooting darts at the dartboard, trying to figure out how we could develop an atmosphere where we could play on both sides of the floor,” says one of the players.
|Suns, 1996-97||1st Round, L|
|Cavaliers (1984-85)||1st Round, L|
|Bulls, 1967-68||Semifinals, Division L|
|— ESPN Stats & Information|
Down the stretch, Green eventually settled on a lineup that included Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., Trey Murphy, and Herb Jones. It offered New Orleans a versatile defensive lineup with enough shot-making ability to get things rolling on offense.
A heated outburst by Green, which Murphy claimed took him off guard, was part of what got the Pelicans going in the fourth quarter.
“To be honest, it was a new side of Willie that I hadn’t seen before. He became quite enraged, “Murphy stated his opinion. “He’s usually calm and collected, but he became enraged and screamed at us. That, I believe, energized us in the fourth quarter. We didn’t want our season to stop at the end of the day. We wanted to keep playing, and he was the driving force behind it.”
After the Clippers landed their first blows of the game, the Pelicans responded with a 27-7 run that put them up 101-94 with 2:10 remaining, capped by Murphy’s fourth 3-pointer of the night.
“Guys came through,” Ingram said. “Trey Murphy had a strong fourth-quarter performance. Defensive rebounding and shot-blocking. We’ll need it from him as time goes on…. Larry Nance came in and did a fantastic job on the glass. Today, we needed something from everyone.”
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|The top 14 lottery selections are forecasted.|
Ingram, who scored 16 of his game-high 30 points in the first quarter, got the Pelicans off to a fast start. Since the team departed New Orleans, Green said Ingram has been locked in.
Green said, “Brandon Ingram is the truth.” “He was the one who delivered it. From the moment we boarded the aircraft, he had that look in his eyes. He’s been imprisoned, shootaround. He’d been yearning for this moment, for a moment like this.”
Green also mentioned Nance, who had 14 points and 16 rebounds off the bench, including the game-winning slam with 4:02 remaining.
Green described Larry as a “beast.” “Because of the way they play, we assumed it would be a Larry game. Ty Lue made the decision to go small, and Larry can defend a variety of perimeter players. He’s large, powerful, and capable of rebounding the ball. We wouldn’t have won the game if he hadn’t put in the effort.”
It’s the first time in Ingram’s NBA career that he’s reached the playoffs, and he’s looking forward to it. McCollum, who was acquired in a midseason trade by the Pelicans, has never missed the playoffs in his nine-year career, having previously made eight straight with Portland.
McCollum expressed his delight that his friend would be able to join him in the playoffs.
McCollum described Ingram as “one of those ones.” “He’s a unique player. He knows where he’s going and when he’ll get there. I obviously get to play with him, which I like, but I’m pleased the rest of the world gets to see who he really is. People forget about you or discount your abilities if you don’t reach the playoffs, I believe. He now has the opportunity to perform on the world’s largest stage. He demonstrated his brilliance tonight.”
Friday night was a dismal finale to a season packed with what-ifs owing to the Clippers’ two players’ lengthy absences. George has missed 52 games this season, including Friday’s play-in game, with the Clippers finishing 24-28 when he isn’t in the lineup and 18-14 when he is. Leonard is still sidelined due to a ruptured ACL, and the club has given no date for his return.
With a healthy George and Leonard, Lue believes the Clippers can be a force next season.
Lue said, “We got our key men back.” “We may be dangerous, after all. It includes aspects of health. We must maintain our health and continue to work.”
Lue said, ” “When you bring back Kawhi Leonard, a top-five player, a PG, and a perennial All-Star, your team transforms dramatically. Guys who have stepped up to greater positions this year and have never been in this situation before may revert to their former jobs. With those two men back and healthy, things may be very different…. We have the potential to be unique.”
Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN contributed to this story.