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Ahead of Game 3 in New Orleans, the Pelicans are producing era-defining moments

Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 11:07 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 22, 2022 at 11:23 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Facing sudden death elimination in a second Play-In game, the Pelicans lost their lead against the Clippers in the 3rd quarter and found themselves down 75-64.

“You gotta fight!”

In what sounded like a battle speech straight out of the movie The Dirty Dozen, Pelicans coach Willie Green rallied his troops and let them know it was not their time to wave the white flag in a moment that instantly went viral online.

“This is what we live for, this is what we worked hard for,” Green said into the faces of his players from the bench during a timeout. “We ain’t giving this up...YOU GOTTA FIGHT!”

Green’s soldiers walked out of that timeout with a mission at hand. Forward Brandon Ingram was the general on the battlefield. When he wasn’t attacking the basket, he was directing traffic and commanding his teammates to get in the right spots.

By Ingram’s side was C.J. McCollum offering more of the same, whether it be from hitting floaters in the lane, or finding Larry Nance Jr. under the basket. Down by as much as 13 to the Clippers in the 4th quarter, the Pelicans’ downhill attack was underway.

Feeding off of the leadership were the Pelicans’ rookies. Second unit point guard Jose Alvarado was in the lineup for much of the 4th quarter, bringing sound ballhandling and passing to the offense and perimeter pressure on defense. Trey Murphy III hit three 3-pointers, including one to tie the game at 94 late in the fourth. At the one-minute mark, Herb Jones was put on the free-throw line to stop the clock. He calmly hit both to go up 103-99 just before Ingram fed Jonas Valanciunas under the basket to seal the team’s fate with a final score of 105-101.

For Pelicans fans that have paid attention all season long, these moments aren’t new for them. They’ve seen them crop up from time to time before they became a regular thing at the end of the season.

It has been an unlikely journey for the team that has not had their biggest star, Zion Williamson, available all season, especially after a 1-12 start.

However, Green’s guys have shown up to fight all season. Eventually, the coach’s faith in his players, himself, and the plan began to turn into positive results.

On Dec. 16, 2021 guard Devonte Graham fired off the shot heard around the world.

With 1.4 seconds left in the 4th quarter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a 30-foot shot that put the OKC Thunder tied at 110. With little time for one final shot, Graham launched a 61-foot cross-court shot to pull out the unlikely 113-110 win on the road. The shot landed itself in the record books as the longest regular-season make in NBA history.

New Orleans Pelicans guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates with teammates after hitting the game...
New Orleans Pelicans guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates with teammates after hitting the game winning basket to end the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)(Sue Ogrocki | AP)

From that moment, on there seemed to be an emotional lift with the team and winning became more consistent. A trade in February added McCollum, who had been a legend in Portland for 9 nine years prior, and Nance. The new additions built a surprising amount of chemistry in a matter of weeks, causing the team to peak in the nick of time.

Paths up to this point aren’t possible without the personal accomplishments of individuals that came together for the better of the whole.

There’s a theme of change for this franchise that is still bridging the gap from the Anthony Davis era. It starts with Green, a rookie head coach, laying down the foundation for a new culture to take hold. Rookie players are making their marks as permanent fixtures. Herb Jones, a second-round pick out of Alabama, got the nod to start early in the season and has become one of the league’s best defenders. Murphy was on a slower track, despite being a first-round pick, but has become the go-to guy for bench shooting. Alvarado, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech, shined in pre-season and chipped away until he became an essential rotation piece and was granted a permanent contact after splitting time between the Pelicans and G-League Birmingham Squadron on a two-way contract.

With Jones being a rare final-round draft find and Alvarado fighting his way into the league the hard way, it’s also bringing up some pre-2009 Saints vibes as these players’ entry into the league has shades of Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas’s journey into the NFL.

In New Orleans, Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum have also been able to step out of the shadows and shine on their own merits. While Ingram and the team would love to have Zion back, particularly right now, Ingram has been able to grow into the role and solidify himself as the leader of the team.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) celebrates after hugging his father Donald...
New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) celebrates after hugging his father Donald Ingram, left, after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, March 27, 2022. The Pelicans won 116-108. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)(AP/Gerald Herbert)

Taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, Ingram was expected to be the Lakers’ next big star after the Kobe Bryant changing of the guard. A pairing with LeBron James, and an unexpected blot clot health scare, turned Ingram into an afterthought for LA that would eventually be cast away in the Davis trade.

Over time, Ingram has filled an Anthony Davis-sized hole in New Orleans while fully embracing the city in the process.

For McCollum, he’s long been considered one of the more elite NBA shooting guards but was always overshadowed by Blazers running mate Damian Lillard. In New Orleans, he’s assumed more lead guard responsibilities and worked with Nance to improve locker room culture off the court.

While Pelicans mania has felt sudden and almost overwhelming to take in right now, the truth is that it’s been bubbling below the surface for quite some time. In a way, it seemed the quiet build to a roaring crescendo seems to have worked to their advantage.

For now, the Pelicans are landing on the biggest of stages whether the world is ready for it or not.

Game 3 starts Friday night at 8:30 p.m. at the Smoothie King Center. The current series with the Phoenix Suns is tied at 1-1 as the Pelicans hope to take a lead in New Orleans.

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