It is both a boring old truism and totally true that things change in the playoffs. Pace slows down and defenses get good, the “calculators and graphs go out the door” to make way for the real hoopers, and the level of focus and intensity necessary to win four games against locked-in opposition warps the way things normally work. Rotations get weird, as mismatch-hunting makes some key guys unplayable. It’s a harsh environment for young teams and new coaches, in short, which is why what the New Orleans Pelicans did last night in Phoenix is so tremendously impressive. Coach Willie Green and Brandon Ingram have never even been to the playoffs before, and yet the Pelicans took it to the best team in the NBA on their home floor and earned a series-evening statement win, 125-114.
Ingram had probably the best game of his career, logging 37 points on perfect three-point shooting to go along with 11 boards and nine assists. He scored 26 of those points in a big second half for the Pelicans, helping his team resist the not-quite best efforts of a hobbled yet ferocious Suns team. Phoenix has Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Torrey Craig to throw at Ingram, but none of those very good defenders can match Ingram’s arachnoid reach on jumpers, and Ingram controlled the fourth quarter by nailing shots from all over the court. Ingram has always been a capable scorer, but what’s taken him over the top this season has been his improved playmaking off the dribble and out of the pick-and-roll. He’s never been a selfish player—he and C.J. McCollum have settled in perfectly next to each other in the weeks since McCollum arrived at the trade deadline—but a polished-up passing game has changed everything for Ingram. When the Suns were bearing down and Ingram kept them at bay, what struck me was not necessarily his shotmaking abilities, but that he so consistently made the right play. When there was an extra pass to be made, he made it. When a cutter flashed at the right time, Ingram hit him. And of course, when his team needed a bucket, he provided.
“It was amazing, just to see him work,” Green said after the win. “I just stopped calling plays and let him call them. He was getting the ball, his teammates were finding him. He hit some incredible shots.”
The biggest story, in both literal and figurative terms, surrounding the Pelicans this season has been the somewhat bizarre absence of Zion Williamson. There’s good reason for this, because Williamson is an unstoppable physical force whose weird talents the Pelicans have built their team to support as best they can, and because he’s missed the entire season with some sort of mysterious foot injury, which is the most troubling issue that someone with Williamson’s startlingly dense physique can have. In his absence, the Pelicans started 1-12 and looked dead in the water. Most teams in that situation would curl up and die, chalk the season up as a lost one, and set their sights on the lottery. Again, there’s a reason for this—after all, their superstar was hurt, and so give or take some potential developmental improvement through on-the-job training in various forgettable losses, the lottery seemed to be the next interesting thing headed the team’s way. But Willie Green refused to bail on the season, and the Pelicans turned things around. Green empowered Ingram to be the team’s leader, and his early-season trust in the team’s three rookies paid off once they started getting up to speed. Their horrid start gave way to a productive December, in which they beat the Bucks and Mavericks and went 8-5. That trade deadline deal for McCollum gave them another elite scorer, one whose defensive weaknesses could be comfortably accommodated within one of the best post-all star break defenses in the NBA and who cost the team very little in present talent. New Orleans even finished above the Lakers, the team whose pick they owned.
Still, Phoenix was supposed to roll them in this series, and might still roll them, and probably would have rolled them last night had Devin Booker not hurt his hamstring. Booker was dominant in the first half, scoring 31 and dapping up a baby. By the time Booker had to leave the game halfway through the third quarter, though, the Pelicans already had the lead, less because Ingram was hitting outrageous shots and more because they were playing Willie Green ball. The Pelicans have been taking every opportunity to hit the fast break, a task made easier by Jaxson Hayes’s violent athletic presence down low. Green played his three rookies—Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and Trey Murphy—a combined 78 minutes last night, with Jones and Alvarado closing the game out. That’s a tremendous amount of trust to put in a trio of first-timers, yet their energy enabled the Pelicans’ insistent style. Alvarado would get the ball in the backcourt and sprint at his hoop, often forcing transition mismatches in the process.
Booker will miss both games in New Orleans, and even though the Suns are still the more talented team, they have to know that they cannot take this challenge lightly. The Pelicans are playing with a little bit of magic. Every few years, there’s a playoff series where everything just clicks for an unexpected team, and few teams in the postseason better fit that bill than New Orleans. Disregarded from the season’s first moments because of Zion’s issues with bipedal locomotion, the Pelicans suddenly look like a club on the rise. They’re loaded with both legit veterans and young players, and play a fun style; they are good, and it’s easy to see how they might be better given that Ingram and Williamson are both no-shit stars (when healthy, of course). They play in a cool city, they don’t fear anyone, and they are coached by a first-time head coach who clearly has the trust of his players and a brain for basketball, and who has already demonstrated the ability to guide a team through the hardest of times. The Pelicans are only here because they beat the Spurs at home and then the Clippers in L.A., a comeback win fueled in part by Green sending them at maximum speed towards their opponents. Who wouldn’t want to root for or play for a guy like this?