Pelicans’ historic comeback to defeat Celtics may or may not be turning point

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NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans gave spectators in the Smoothie King Center plenty of reasons to leave early.

They gave television viewers and radio listeners plenty of reasons to tune out.

They gave anyone who has been paying attention to them plenty of reasons to believe that the game against the Boston Celtics on Sunday was just more of the same.

They were lethargic on defense, they were inconsistent on offense, they were seemingly over-matched.

They trailed by 16 at halftime, fell behind by 24 in the third quarter and seemed headed to a sixth loss in seven games, which would have dropped their record to 12-18.

Then things started to change.

They started playing better, smarter and harder on defense. Zion Williamson came to life. Josh Hart led a surge. Brandon Ingram took over.

Those who stayed in their seats and those who kept watching and listening had reason to hope, if not fully believe that this game was more than just more of the same.

The Pelicans caught the Celtics, then passed them, then went into overtime.

They kept up the pressure, they refused to give back the ground they had gained, they watched the Celtics succumb to their relentlessness the way they had the succumbed to the relentlessness of plenty of other opponents.

They won 120-115. They completed the largest comeback in franchise history. They demonstrated that maybe this season isn’t a lost cause, just as Sunday’s game proved not to be a lost cause despite the early evidence that it was.

There were fleeting hints that the Pelicans weren’t going to go away quietly even after an early 11-2 burst turned into 30-28 deficit at the end of the first quarter, after a 19-point second-quarter created that 16-point halftime deficit.

Turnovers have been a chronic problem for the Pelicans. “It’s always important to take care of the ball,” coach Stan Van Gundy said before the game.

The Celtics outscored them 19-0 in points off turnovers in the first half.

Then Lonzo Ball scored the first points of the third quarter when he made a steal and converted a layup for his team’s first points off a turnover.

Zion Williamson, the team’s most dependable player in recent weeks, shook off an uncharacteristically passive first half in which he scored just four points and aggressively drove to the basket for Pelicans’ second field goal of the quarter.

But, in typical Pelicans fashion, just minutes after those encouraging moments they were behind by 24 points.

Then it changed.

The Pelicans got serious about playing defense, something has been rare although not completely absent this season.

They held the Celtics to eight points in the last half of the third quarter, and Williamson quietly gave the offense a lift. He made two baskets at the end of the period to reach double figures as the Pelicans finished on an 11-3 run and pulled within 87-74.

The chances of completing the comeback seemed slim, but it was less than 48 hours earlier that the Pelicans held an 11-point lead at the end of the third quarter and lost by 18 to Phoenix.

The change in this fourth quarter wasn’t as dramatic as the change in Friday’s, but it was significant nonetheless.

Josh Hart scored eight straight Pelicans points and they got within 93-90. Brandon Ingram’s 3-pointer tied the score.

Williamson’s three-point play gave New Orleans a two-point lead with 6.9 seconds left and Jayson Tatum scored on a short floater with 0.2 left to send the game into overtime.

Boston held a one-point lead before Ingram made a free throw and added a 3-pointer to give the Pelicans a 115-112 lead. Hart’s two free throws increased the lead to five with 18.6 seconds left and the Pelicans finished it.

The Pelicans, who held the Celtics to 21 points in the fourth quarter and seven in overtime, did not commit a turnover after the third quarter.

“We were far from perfect,” Van Gundy observed. “There were a lot of things we didn’t do, but we kept fighting and nobody dropped their heads. We were resilient and we came away with a win.”

It would be premature if not downright naïve to assume this game was a turning point. Whenever the Pelicans have offered evidence to suggest they were heading in the right direction they have soon afterward offered evidence to the contrary.

Remember the ugly stretch that preceded Sunday’s game was preceded by a season-best four-game winning streak.

This win was unexpected, improbable and potentially important. Whether it’s just a distraction in what returns to being a disappointing season or something else will be determined going forward.

“We’ve got to remember this game,” Hart said. “I think the biggest thing is that effort, that communication, that grit. We can remember that going into every other game, especially when teams do make a run.

“We can think back to this game and know that during that time, we didn’t go our separate ways. We got closer together and we were able to pull out a tough win.”

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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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