Improving Pelicans finish 2021 on a promising run
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans began 2021 with a new head coach.
They finished it with a different new head coach.
They began 2021 by losing eight of their first 10 games.
They finished it by winning five of their last six games.
They began 2021 with Zion Williamson as their leading scorer.
They finished it without him playing a single game since undergoing foot surgery in the summer.
It was a turbulent year for the Pelicans in 2021, but they head into 2022 in their most positive position in a good while.
Sure there’s no telling when Williamson will return or even play at all this season, and sure they’re 13-22 and have the third-worst record in the Western Conference.
But they have time – time to continue improving the record as they have by following a 3-16 start with a 10-6 spurt, time to overcome the two-game gap between them and the 10th and final play-in spot, time to overcome the 4½-game gap between them and the sixth and final playoff spot, time to perhaps get Williamson back and time for whoever is available to continue grow with head coach Willie Green.
Williamson’s absence and the terrible start, which included 12 losses in the first 13 games, suggested the 2021-2022 season might be a lost cause before the 2022 part of it even started.
But this season is not a lot cause. Far from it.
Williamson’s status remains the biggest unknown and the biggest potential boost to the remainder of the season.
No one knows when Williamson will next play in a game, but the positive feelings the Pelicans have generated at the end of 2021 have come without Williamson.
They have come partly because Brandon Ingram has played his most complete basketball of late and in spite of him missing eight games overall.
They have come because Jonas Valanciunas has been their most consistent player, finishing with a double-double in 24 of his last 31 games.
They have come because second-round draft choice Herbert Jones has done a mean impersonation of a lottery pick.
And most importantly they have come because Green never lost confidence in his players and they never lost confidence in their rookie leader.
The final performance of 2021 on Tuesday night was as good as the Pelicans have had in recent memory. Ingram didn’t play because of Achilles soreness that forced him out of a loss at Oklahoma City after less than nine minutes two days earlier. Josh Hart, one of the most important players on the team, was sidelined by an ankle injury.
Fourth-leading scorer Nickeil Alexander-Walker missed his third consecutive game after testing positive for COVID and reserve forward Naji Marshall also was in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
The visiting Cleveland Cavaliers scored the first nine points of the game, rolled to a 37-14 advantage and held a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
But Garrett Temple, who was scoreless after missing his only shot during the first three quarters, made all five of his 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, Jones scored a season-high 26 points, Devonte’ Graham added 18 Valanciunas returned from a two-game absence due to a non-COVID illness to get 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Gary Clark scored 12.
The Pelicans held the Cavaliers without a field goal for nearly eight minutes in the fourth quarter and grabbed a 108-104 victory.
“It just shows the fight that we have,” Jones said. “The energy was kind of low at the beginning. We picked it up and we just stayed together, regardless of what was going on. The adversity we faced, we just stayed together and fought through it.”
The 23-point deficit the Pelicans overcame against the Cavaliers was the second-largest in franchise history, one point less than they overcame in an overtime victory against the Boston Celtics under former coach Stan Van Gundy last season.
“That’s the way we have to play,” Green said. “In any sport or anything you do in life, you have to be confident in what you’re doing, and the guys have confidence because they put the work in. All the guys are in the gym every day.
“They’re putting the work in, and it translates. That’s why no matter what happens we can go out and give ourselves a chance. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game, but it’s a huge blessing to have a group like this that comes in every day and enjoys being around each other and they just hoop. It’s fun.”
It looks like the 2022 part of this season might be even more fun.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…