Pelicans’ finale, like their whole season, was about what might have been
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans season ended in a 123-118 play-in loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night in the Smoothie King Center.
The abrupt end to a season that began with so much promise was the final reminder of what might have been – but wasn’t.
The final 24-plus hours of the season served as a reminder of the lost opportunity that was the 2022-23 season.
The biggest factor in that lost opportunity was the unavailability of All-Star forward Zion Williamson, which was highlighted oddly as his teammates were focused on trying to extend their season.
First there was an awkward Tuesday news conference in which Williamson tried to explain his ongoing absence due to a hamstring injury suffered 99 days earlier followed by his conspicuous pre-game on-court appearance to shoot jumpers and show off a windmill dunk before he returned to his customary seat on the team’s bench.
When the game finally started the stage belonged to the remnants of a team that led the Western Conference in December, one that endured a 10-game losing streak, then won nine of its final 12 games to get a play-in opportunity at home.
But this loss – and lost opportunity – wasn’t about Williamson’s absence. It was about what might have been if a still pretty good team had been able to match the competitiveness of a frisky but very green opponent when both teams were fighting to keep playing.
The Pelicans trailed by nine points entering the fourth quarter, but began the final period with a 14-4 run to take a one-point lead. The lead changed hands six more times and the score was tied five times, the final time at 112.
Brandon Ingram’s jumper broke the final tie and gave the Pelicans their final lead with 1:21 remaining. The Thunder took the lead for good on a basket by All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 28.3 seconds left, which was part of an 11-4 closing run by the visitors.
“I told them that we’re all extremely proud of this group and what they’ve accomplished this season,” head coach Willie Green said. “We’ve been through a lot this year – health, injuries, guys being out of the lineup, shuffling the deck and stuff going on in family lives.
“For them to put together the type of season they put together this year, it’s a credit to the character of our players, our staff and our coaches. It’s hard to do and I’m extremely appreciative.”
Gilgeous-Alexander scored a game-high 32 points, Josh Giddey added 31 points and 10 assists (falling one rebound short of a triple-double), Lu Dort scored 27 and Jalen Williams had 11.
Ingram led the Pelicans with 30 points and Trey Murphy III added 21, though his final field-goal attempt came with 7:18 left in the game. Herbert Jones Jr. contributed 20 points despite being saddled for most of the game with the responsibility of defending Gilgeous-Alexander.
Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points and 18 rebounds despite missing much of the fourth quarter after being hobbled by an apparent lower-leg injury and CJ McCollum, who said after the game that he’ll soon have surgery to repair an injured thumb that hampered him throughout the second half of the season, had 14 points.
The Pelicans earned home-court Wednesday because of a 42-40 regular-season record compared to the Thunder’s 40-42 mark. New Orleans had won three of the four regular-season meetings, though OKC’s victory came in the most recent meeting a month ago was by a margin (14 points) that exceeded the Pelicans’ combined margin (10 points) in their three wins.
The four first-round games in the NBA play-in tournament featured games in which the lower-seeded and thereby visiting teams were more competitive than was generally anticipated.
All four road teams were understandably underdogs but each covered the betting line. The only visitor that didn’t win was Minnesota, which led for most of the game against the Lakers before losing 108-102 on Tuesday night.
The Bulls scored one more point than the Lakers’ total against the Wolves in their upset of the Raptors on Wednesday night and the Hawks scored 116 in their upset of the Heat in the post-season opener Tuesday.
But the Thunder surpassed them all with their point total, outscoring the Pelicans 39-24 in the third quarter.
The Pelicans led by six after a first half in which Gilgeous-Alexander scored just seven points.
But the third quarter was quite different.
OKC began the quarter determined to get Gilgeous-Alexander guard more and better shots and he responded by scoring 17 points, making six of nine field goals, his only 3-pointer and all four of his free throws.
Giddey added 12 points as the Thunder outscored the Pelicans 39-24 to take a 96-87 lead into the fourth quarter.
Valanciunas had six points and eight rebounds in less than five minutes as the Pelicans built a 19-10 lead.
That vanished quickly as the Thunder needed just two minutes, 30 seconds to put together a 14-2 run and take a 24-21 lead.
In a surprise move the first substitution that Willie Green turned to was guard Kira Lewis Jr., who had played in just one of the last seven games and hadn’t played meaningful minutes in a month.
The move was suggestive of fading confidence in rookie Dyson Daniels, who was removed from the rotation against Minnesota on Sunday, and a recognition that Josh Richardson, who had two points in 29 minutes against the Wolves, was wearing down in the absence of injured Jose Alvarado.
Jaxson Hayes got the call to relieve Valanciunas in the absence of primary backup center Larry Nance Jr. (ankle soreness) and he contributed two points and three rebounds in four minutes. Jones played the entire first quarter and had nine points and three assists.
Ingram went to the bench after committing his second foul with 1:22 left in the period, which finished with OKC holding a 32-29 lead.
Murphy missed all five of his field-goal attempts in a scoreless first quarter, but heated up in the second quarter. He made a 3-pointer to tie even the score at 40, the first of five ties in the period.
He made two more 3-pointers during a closing 10-2 run by the Pelicans to finish with 15 points in the period as the Pelicans took a 63-57 halftime lead.
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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…