Sports

The Pelicans turned the NBA’s least interesting playoff matchup into can’t-miss television


CJ McCollum

CJ McCollum
Photo: Getty Images

Even after the New Orleans Pelicans’ disastrous 1-12 start to the 2021-22 season, it’s not as if there was some seismic shift. Their first winning streak came in mid-December when they tallied four victories in a row. Before that, they were still only 9-21 on the season. Since that streak they have been a better team, but it’s not like they went on a tear the rest of the way. As of Dec. 15 the Pelicans have gone 28-25.

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There was buzz around the team in February when they traded for C.J. McCollum. It’s not a move normally made by teams that are 10 games under .500, but the Pelicans just happened to be holding onto the final spot in the play-in tournament. After the Pelicans acquired McCollum, they went exactly 14-14 over their final 28 games to finish the season 36-46. Fortunately for them, the Los Angeles Lakers sputtered and broke down in the middle of the road and New Orleans actually moved up one seed in the play-in tournament and hosted a game. The Pelicans won that and would then survive a dramatic play-in final against the Los Angeles Clippers that ended with some painful foul shooting.

It has been some time since the Pelicans were in the postseason, and that was supposed to be enough of an accomplishment for a season in which their superstar player, Zion Williamson, did not take the floor in a single game. Their reward for advancing past the play-in was the reward that the most mid of the mid-majors get for a win in the First-Four, a matchup against a juggernaut. Their opponent, the Phoenix Suns, were a few plays away from winning the NBA Championship last year, and played with that confidence all season long as they finished with 64 wins and the best record in the league.

Game 1 went as expected with a 110-99 road loss, even though Jonas Valančiūnas grabbed 25 rebounds. Then the Pelicans won Game 2. Not only did they win it, but they led the game most of the way. When Devin Booker went down with a hamstring injury late in the third quarter, he had scored 31 points on 63.2 percent shooting but the Pelicans were still up 77-74. After he left the game, the Pelicans would only relinquish the lead once more as they stole a game on the road, 125-114.

Then the series shifted to New Orleans, and that’s where it has changed from a likely gentleman’s sweep, to full-fledged NBA playoff war. Here NBA fans have gotten to witness the Pelicans in their element with a fan base that is far more enthusiastic about their basketball team than they are given credit for. Both games were competitive and the young Pelicans’ confidence appears to be growing with every trip down the court. The Suns are the veteran bunch, bringing 64 wins and recent championship game experience to the table, but have lost some of their composure lately. Much of that is because of the athleticism youth the inexperienced Pelicans are bringing to the table, along with a heavy dash of piss and vinegar.

They have not been afraid to mix it up with the Suns, but they’ve done it — for the most part — as their coach Willie Green has said. They’re not going to get caught up in the mess, but they’re not going to back down from anyone either. Playoff intensity is not phasing them at all and their young bucks are bucking hard at the Suns.

Jaxson Hayes got into it with Jae Crowder in the first half of Game 3, and Crowder did have a right to be upset. The young center absolutely shoved Crowder right to the floor while going for a rebound, and it got him ejected from the game, but sometimes a tone has to be set. Then there’s Game 4, in which the Pelicans were doing their best to live in Chris Paul’s head.

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Ingram got into it with Paul in the third quarter and the man from the same hometown as Jerry Stackhouse let Paul know that any dispute can be settled just as easily off the court as on it. Don’t forget Ingram was one of the ringleaders of that dust up between the Lakers and Houston Rockets in 2018. There was also rookie Herb Jones quietly getting away with knocking Paul over after taking some contact from one of the NBA’s known agitators, and then Jones not accepting a helpful hand from Paul later in the game. And of course there is no mention of this game without rookie Jose Alvarado putting Paul in the torture chamber in the fourth quarter. Not only did he get a strip from behind, but he also caused an eight-second violation. Paul’s frustration bubbled over late with a flagrant foul as he wound up and clocked Jones, who was on his way to the rim for a layup, in the head.

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Of course, Booker’s injury and Brandon Ingram deciding to become Kevin Durant since the original is having some ignition issues against Boston are why this series is tied at 2-2. But what’s making it fun are these feisty youngsters showing last year’s Western Conference champs no respect. It’s Jones blocking 3-pointers and looking like a young Giannis. It’s Alvarado getting his own chant from the New Orleans crowd, and being buddies with Jamie Foxx because of their pickup games in Atlanta while Alvarado was in college.

It would’ve been reasonable to think that this well below .500 eighth seed without their 360 degree basketball dunking phenom wouldn’t provide much entertainment value in the first wrong. But remember folks, don’t judge a book by its cover. These youngsters, with some steady veteran leadership in McCollum, are giving a potential NBA champion all that they can handle. And they’re putting on a damn good show while doing it.

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