Pelicans’ playoff push is going to be fun to watch

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Zion Williamson
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans are going into the All-Star break on a losing note.

But that’s OK.

A hard-fought 123-118 loss to Oklahoma City on Thursday night gave the Thunder a sweep of the four-game season series.

But that’s OK.

The loss made the uphill fight to get into the playoffs just a little bit harder coming out of the break.

But that too is OK.

It’s all OK because this is clearly a team that is on the rise, a team that presumably will get All-Star forward Brandon Ingram back from a three-game absence due to a sprained ankle when it resumes play at Portland on Feb. 21.

It’s a team that was coming off arguably its best two-game stretch of the season before it came up short against a very good Thunder team on Thursday night.

The Pelicans had beaten a very good Indiana team on the road, 124-117, last Saturday, playing without Ingram and Zion Williamson.

Three nights later Williamson returned and the Pelicans routed Portland by 21 after trailing by 16. Williamson had the most productive of his nine games, scoring a season-high 31 points, a total he would surpassed by one against the Thunder in his 10th game.

New Orleans and Oklahoma City went back and forth in a game of spurts. The Thunder had the last and best spurt.

Williamson’s final basket gave the Pelicans a 105-104 lead, but that was with 6:18 remaining and he would make just one free throw the rest of the way.

Meanwhile Danilo Gallinari would score nine more points, finishing with 11 in the fourth quarter and 29 in the game to be the difference maker.

The loss dropped New Orleans to 23-32, out of a tie with San Antonio and into 11th place in the Western Conference.

The Pelicans have 27 games left, 13 at home and 14 away.

But that’s OK too, because they have a better road record than home record, which could be important when they follow the game at Portland with visits to play the Warriors and the West-leading Lakers before playing their next home game on Feb. 28 against Cleveland.

If they’re going to get one of the eight playoff spots in the West they have to pass the Spurs, the Blazers and the Grizzlies. They’re a half-game behind the Spurs, 1½ behind the Blazers and 5½ behind the Grizzlies.

That’s a tall order, but one that seems not so tall when you consider this team was 6-22 after losing 13 consecutive games.

But Derrick Favors returned from injury and the defense got much better. Then Williamson returned from a 44-game absence due to knee surgery and everything got better.

Williamson, Ingram and guard Jrue Holiday were getting a pretty good handle on how to play together before Ingram and Williamson both went down with sprained ankles in a win at Chicago last week.

They’ll have the whole band back together for the start of the 27-game spring to the finish line and no team in the NBA has as much potential upside going down the stretch as this one does, even after winning 17 of its last 27 games.

Regardless of what happens in Portland, New Orleans will hold the tie-breaker against the Blazers, having won the first three games of the season series. The Pelicans are 2-0 against Memphis with two more meetings. They’re 0-1 against the Spurs, but get three more cracks at them, including the regular-season finale in San Antonio on April 15.

So New Orleans has a great deal of control of its own fate even though it will need some help down the stretch.

But here’s the bottom line:

This team was virtually written off after the rash of early-season injuries and the 13-game losing streak.

It overcame that and much of the improvement came before Williamson even started playing.

He already has had an enormous impact and potentially has 27 games ahead of him. Teams do not know how to stop him and the return of Ingram will make that even more difficult to figure out.

A team that was all but out playoff contention during the first half of the season is very much in it with a third of the season to go.

There will be a lot of important games played in the Smoothie King Center during the last seven weeks of the season.

Judging by the atmosphere in recent games and the buzz generated by Williamson’s astounding play thus far, it will feel like the playoffs from here on out.

This team has a small margin for error as it tries to overcome the terrible start to the season.

It might not be able to climb out of what remains of that very deep hole.

But it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun watching them try to do it.

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Les East

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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