The New Orleans Pelicans entered the Target Center on Easter Sunday with the chance to avoid the NBA’s play-in tournament completely, but left with a stinging defeat and the Western Conference’s 9th seed.
Brandon Ingram scored a season-high 42 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and handed out seven assists, but it wasn’t enough as the Timberwolves outscored the Pelicans 66-53 in the second half.
Ingram was on fire during the first half, particularly in the first quarter. He was aggressive from the opening tip, scoring at all three levels and getting to the line. When the period ended he had 21 of the Pelicans’ first 30 points. B.I. had more points than the entire Timberwolves team after 12 minutes.
In the second quarter the tide started to turn, especially after Minnesota experienced a bit of a sideline meltdown. A scuffle between Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson on the bench during a time out led to Gobert leaving the arena and a rally for the home team.
At the half, the Pelicans held a tenuous 8-point lead.
Minnesota’s offense really got going in the third quarter. Anthony Edwards had 13 of his 26 in the period and the T-Wolves connected on 70 percent of their shot attempts (5-of-8 3PA) to cut the Pelicans’ lead down to a single basket entering the final quarter.
Turnovers and poor execution became an issue. The Pelicans were beaten on multiple occasions for offensive rebounds off of missed free throws and Karl-Anthony Towns opened the fourth by scoring 9 straight points on some deep three-pointers. Just two minutes into the period, the Pelicans were suddenly down by five.
Pelicans head coach Willie Green was not pleased with his team’s performance during crunch time.
“When you get to this point in the season, everything counts,” he said. “Five-point game, seven points off of free throw box-outs. That’s not Minnesota, that’s us. That’s us not doing our jobs every single time down the floor. We fought, we played a solid game, but we didn’t do enough down the stretch — and that’s where we’ve got to be better.”
The Pelicans retook the lead with 4:21 to play after a quick 11-6 spurt that was capped by a pair of free throws by Trey Murphy III. Unfortunately, Josh Richardson took an ill-advised three which turned into a tip-in by Edwards, who then stole the ball from Ingram to set up some free throws by Taurean Prince that put the Wolves back in front, 105-102, with three minutes remaining.
Ingram, CJ McCollum, and Herb Jones all had open looks or layups down the stretch that could have given the Pelicans the lead, but none of them would go down. New Orleans’ last-best chance to tie the game was lost when Mike Conley Jr. stripped McCollum and Edwards finished with a three-point play that made it 109-104.
The Pelicans were outscored in each of the final three quarters and were once again at a deficit from behind the three point arc (-30 points on Sunday).
“We started to play slow. That’s an area that we know when team’s go small we still have got to play with force, we still have got to play with pace and we slowed the ball down a bit much.”
It was a difficult ending to a regular season that saw more than its share of ups and downs. However, the Pelicans did earn their first winning season since 2017-18 and overcame a 10-25 stretch to close with nine wins over their final 12 games to get back into the postseason.
With the loss, the Pelicans now have to win two games to advance to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. They will host the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans won three of four against the Thunder this season, but each game was incredibly close. Oklahoma City outscored New Orleans by four points in the series.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Green. “But you know, we are where we are now. We’ve got to go home, re-group and get back to work.”
Should the Pelicans advance, they will take on the loser of Tuesday’s game between the 7th-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and the 8th-seeded Timberwolves.