Significance of Pelicans’ comeback win transcends the standings

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NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans’ victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night improved their play-in chances significantly.

But it was bigger than that.

The 116-108 win moved the Pelicans into ninth place in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the Lakers. It clinched the season series – and the accompanying head-to-head tie-breaker – even though the teams will meet again Friday night in Los Angeles.

The win also gave the Pelicans a 1½-game lead over 11th-place San Antonio instead of the half-game lead they would have held if they would have lost.

And for most of the evening it looked as though the Pelicans definitely would lose. They watched the Lakers score the first 12 points of the game, build a 23-point advantage in the second quarter and coast into halftime with a 20-point lead.

LeBron James looked revitalized after getting five days off to rest his sore left knee. He scored 25 first-half points to lead a focus and determined group that appeared headed toward handing the Pelicans a second damaging loss in 24 hours.

The Pelicans had missed an opportunity to expand their lead on the Spurs when San Antonio beat them 107-103 on Saturday.

But the Pelicans regrouped at halftime Sunday and sent a message to the Lakers and the largest crowd in the Smoothie King Center since the 2018 playoffs that the second half was going to be much different than the first half.

“We made a few adjustments at halftime and challenged our group to be more disciplined as we were all over the place,” coach Willie Green said afterward. “To (the Lakers’) credit, they came out and punched us in our mouth right away.

“We hung in there and were resilient the whole game. The goal was don’t try to get it all back at one time. We are down 20, but it’s just one stop then one score at a time.”

Green had a specific message for rookie No. 1 draft choice Trey Murphy III, who did not score in the first half.

“Coach Green told me before I got in,” Murphy recalled, “‘look, we got nothing to lose. Just go hoop.’”

And hoop he did.

Murphy scored 16 points in the third quarter, making all three of his 3-point attempts, as the Pelicans outscored the Lakers 41-25 in the period. That left them trailing just 94-90 entering the fourth quarter.

Murphy would score five more points in the fourth quarter, but it was Brandon Ingram who took over down the stretch.

Ingram returned from a 10-game absence due to a strained hamstring to score 26 points. He returned to the game with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter and scored seven points during the next 3½ minutes as the Pelicans took control.

Afterward Ingram said he was “really lost for words.” But he did call the win against his former team “special” and found words to describe Murphy’s contribution.

“On the offensive end, he did a really, really good job,” Ingram said, “but on the defensive end, he was locked in too, rebounding the basketball, getting it to the right guys, and being shot-ready. He played like a professional tonight.”

Though Ingram did return, he was on a minutes restriction and forward Larry Nance Jr. sat out the second game of the beck-to-back set after playing two games in three nights in his return from arthroscopic knee surgery last month.

CJ McCollum, who matched Ingram’s seven fourth-quarter points, and Jonas Valanciunas were game-time decisions because of injuries and Jaxson Hayes played through a dislocated finger that sent him to the locker room in the first quarter.

“We’re a little banged up,” Green said. “Gutsy win. They gutted it out, stayed connected. What a blessing to be a part of a game like that and come out on the winning end. It was fun.”

The 23-point margin that the Pelicans overcame to win tied for the largest it has overcome this season. It matched the deficit during a 108-104 win against Cleveland on December 28 and was one-point less than the franchise-record comeback against Boston last season.

“We are so proud of that group in the locker room,” Green said. “That was growth.”

And that’s what was most important about the win – the growth that it showed.

The improvement in the standings was significant as the Pelicans embark on a four-game road trip.

But the response that Green, his staff and the players made in order to produce the comeback victory showed that this program is growing.

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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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