It’s time to embrace rising Pelicans

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Jonad Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans had just beaten the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night in the Smoothie King Center.

They had their highest point total of the season, reaching it when Brandon Ingram swished a tie-breaking 3-pointer to provide a thrilling 128-125 outcome in perhaps the most entertaining game of the season, which was the final one of the first half of the season.

Guard Josh Hart, whose value to his team exceeds what his statistics suggest perhaps more than that of any of his teammates, pondered the victory afterward.

“We’re a team that’s on the rise,” Hart said. “We need this city to embrace us fully and support us every night. That was big.”

It was a very big win – and the Pelicans are a team on the rise, one deserving full embracing and support on a nightly basis.

Hart and his teammates punctuated his point 48 hours later with one of their most lopsided victories of the season to tip off the second half of a season that’s looking more promising by the day.

The Pelicans bolted to a 26-7 lead, led by 13 points at the end of the first quarter, by 19 at halftime and by as many as 28 in the second half. They never trailed in a 113-89 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, falling a single point short of matching their largest margin of victory this season.

One victory came because of a season-best scoring effort and the other came because of an outstanding defensive effort.

“Everything was triggered by our ability to play defense by keeping those guys out of the paint and contesting their threes,” first-year coach Willie Green said after the victory against the Clippers. “I expect to see it and try to get our team to play consistently this way.”

The back-to-back victories left the Pelicans with a 16-26 record with 40 games left to play between now and April 10.

Though the Pelicans’ 13-10 record after a 3-16 start validates Hart’s designation of them as a team on the rise, they have a very long way to go to raise their ceiling beyond a pretty low height.

But the NBA awards teams that reach pretty low ceilings.

Avoiding the bottom third of either 15-team conference enables a team to play beyond the regular season. The ninth and 10th seeds earn “play-in” spots against the seventh and eighth seeds. The top six teams advance directly into the traditional playoff tournament.

When the Pelicans walked off the court Thursday night they were tied with Sacramento for 11th place in the Western Conference, one game out of the final play-in spot, 4.5 games out of the eighth spot and 5.5 games out of the sixth spot.

So the math makes it clear that the Pelicans have a reasonable opportunity to keep playing beyond April 10.

More importantly they have mostly played for weeks now as a team capable of taking advantage of that opportunity.

“We’ve gotten better every single game (of late),” Ingram said.

“Every day, our mindset isn’t just on the results but trying to improve,” Green said. “If we do that and come in with joy and compete and work hard while playing together, which our guys are doing, the results will come.”

The Pelicans improved to 3-0 against the Clippers this season as they won for the seventh time in their last nine home games.

Now they go on the road – to Brooklyn on Saturday, to Boston on Monday and to New York on Thursday.

That’s a challenging stretch, though not as difficult as the one they had to start the New Year – visiting defending champion Milwaukee before hosting two of the league’s top teams in Utah and Phoenix.

They lost all three of those before defeating another elite team, a short-handed Golden State squad, last week before losing at Toronto on Sunday and coming home for these last two games.

The victories against the Timberwolves and the Clippers were the Pelicans’ first home games since the Saints’ season ended in disappointing fashion as a playoff berth slipped through their fingers.

Each year the Pelicans are an after-thought for many New Orleanians until the Saints season ends, which this season happened before the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Saints season is over, but the Pelicans season seems to be on an upward trajectory.

Green and his players are unifying in an encouraging push toward a potential post-season opportunity much as Saints head coach Sean Payton and his players made an inspiring push before falling barely short.

Josh Hart is right.

It’s time to embrace this team. It has earned it.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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…

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