Pelicans roll over Blazers with a Saints vibe in the air

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NEW ORLEANS — For a change, the Saints served as a warm-up act for the Pelicans on Thursday.

Throughout the day, bits and pieces of the 2018 NFL schedule trickled out prior to the official announcement, which would come at 7 p.m., a little more than an hour before the Pelicans were to tip off against Portland in Game 3 of their playoff series.

Each revelation about the schedule whetted the appetite of fans of New Orleans’ NFL team as they eagerly awaited the opportunity for New Orleans’ NBA team to grab a commanding 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

Two home games to start the season. A Monday Night Football home game against The Redskins. Back-to-back Thursday night games — at home against the Falcons on Thanksgiving night, at Dallas a week later. A Sunday night game at Minnesota. Another Monday nighter at Carolina.

Five prime-time games and other marquee games against the Ravens Rams, Eagles, Steelers and, of course, the remaining NFC South games.

It was easy for Saints fans to start visualizing the intensity of those games and the prospects of a return to the playoffs after New Orleans came tantalizingly close to reaching the NFC Championship less than four months ago.

But this day was about the Pelicans, the clear-cut runners-up for New Orleans fans’ affection, but a group that is rapidly attracting a deeper allegiance with its march into and performance in the playoffs. The high point came in a 119-102 victory Thursday night that wasn’t as competitive as the final score suggests.

The Pelicans went 20-8 down the stretch in the regular season, winning their last five games. That earned them just the sixth seed in the remarkably competitive and deep Western Conference, but from the start of this series last Saturday it seemed the seeds should have been reversed between them and No. 3 Portland.

After 97-95 and 111-102 victories on the road, New Orleans came home to a sellout crowd and the fans seemed as ready for their playoff debut as their team had been for its.

Fans filed in and donned the red playoff shirts awaiting them on their seats, and Irma Thomas belted out a flawless version of the National Anthem.

When the game started it was like watching Drew Brees and the Saints offense at their best — everyone contributing as a dazed opponent tried to keep up while falling back on its heels.

Anthony Davis hurt his left thumb in the opening moments and played several minutes before leaving briefly to have it checked and given the thumbs up in the locker room. When he returned to the court, the Pelicans were holding a comfortable 36-20 lead as Nikola Mirotic had 14 points, Jrue Holiday seven and Davis six.

The lead quickly grew to 20 early in the second quarter. Former Pelican Al-Farouq Aminu and C.J. McCollum heated up as Portland got within 11, but Mirotic and Holiday answered, giving New Orleans a 64-45 halftime lead.

New Orleans rapper and producer Mannie Fresh kept the vibe going through halftime and the Pelicans took care of the rest.

The lead grew to as many as 25 during the third quarter and the Pelicans had a 91-70 edge when the period ended. The Smoothie King Center officially took on the feel of a Saints game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next door when “Get Crunk” serenaded the crowd into the fourth quarter.

The final period turned into a 12-minute celebration of New Orleans’ return to NBA prominence, which hasn’t been this significant since a decade ago this spring, when the Hornets beat Dallas and got within one win of the Western Conference finals before losing to San Antonio in seven games, just as last season was a celebration of New Orleans’ return to NFL prominence after three straight losing seasons.

The fans gave rousing ovations to injured Pelicans All-Star forward DeMarcus Cousins, who was on the home team’s bench for the first time since suffering a season-ending Achilles injury Jan. 26, and to Saints running back Alvin Kamara, the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.

“Tonight there was so much energy in the building and the crowd was so into the game,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I don’t think they understand how much that helps.”

The lead reached 33 points before Gentry emptied his bench and started looking ahead to the opportunity to end this series late Saturday afternoon.

Saints fans are eagerly awaiting next week’s NFL Draft and how it might enhance New Orleans’ prospects for another playoff run next season.

But in the meantime, this city’s NBA team looks like it might be hanging around the post-season for a while itself.

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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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