The New Orleans Pelicans long, strange season has come to an end after a disappointing 123-118 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA play-in tournament.
New Orleans trailed by one after Brandon Ingram’s three-pointer with four seconds remaining; and had the ball down by two with two seconds on the clock, but Herb Jones’ inbound pass to CJ McCollum slipped out of bounds. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with a game-high 32 points then iced the game at the line.
It was a strange conclusion to an unusual play-in tournament where the road teams won three of four. Just hours after the Toronto Raptors became the first ninth-seed to lose a play-in game, the New Orleans Pelicans became the second.
Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans with 30 points (10-19 FGA, 9-11 FTA), giving him eight games with 30 or more over his final 15, as well as seven assists and six rebounds. Trey Murphy III scored 21 points, Jonas Valanciunas collected another double-double with 16 points and 18 rebounds, and Jones added 20, five rebounds, and five assists.
The Thunder trio of SGA, Josh Giddey (31 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds), and Lou Dort (27 pts, five rebounds) combined for 90 of OKC’s 123 points. Jalen Williams was the only other player to reach double figures (11 pts).
Ingram did his best to offset the Thunder’s big three down the stretch, scoring the Pelicans’ final 10 points. He did miss a crucial free throw with 10 seconds in the fourth that would have brought New Orleans to within a point, but his team wouldn’t have had a chance late without his efforts.
The pain of the loss was evident on the faces of the fans and the players as the final seconds ticked away. Another frustrating end to a Pelicans season that began with so much promise.
New Orleans got out of the gate slowly, trailing by three after the first quarter. In the second, the Pelicans started to find their rhythm.
With just over nine minutes to play in the half Trey Murphy III scored seven consecutive points to give the Pelicans a 42-40 lead. OKC was able to push their back to six, that is until the Pelicans put together a 14-7 closing kick over the final 4:39 to take a 63-57 lead into the half.
Murphy had 15 of his 21 points, and Jonas Valanciunas posted a double-double in the first 24 minutes to pace the Pels while CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram were held at bay.
Even though they managed to make only four shots from beyond the arc in the first half, New Orleans played the first about as well as possible. They were active going to the basket and got to the free throw line, and most importantly they contained SGA on the defensive end, holding the NBA’s 7th-leading scorer to seven points on 3-of-10 shooting.
Unfortunately, that effort didn’t carry over into the third quarter. The Thunder, which managed only 20 points in the paint during the first half, were able to repeatedly attack the Pelicans’ interior defense off the dribble.
SGA and Giddey played downhill the entire period, combining for 29 points in the quarter. The Pelicans scored a total of 24, losing the quarter and the lead as OKC scored 24 points inside.
The Pelicans seemed to recapture their energy at the start of the fourth quarter, opening the final frame with an 18-9 run and tying the score at 106 on a Herb Jones jumper in front of the Thunder bench. Ingram then went on his scoring run, giving New Orleans brief leads with three minutes, two minutes, and less than 90 seconds to play.
But it would be Gilgeous-Alexander with the winning basket. His layup with :28 on the clock gave the Thunder the lead for good.
Statistically, the Pelicans outshot the Thunder and won the battle on the boards. New Orleans only turned it over 11 times in the game, well below its average of more than 17 during its four regular season contests with OKC, and got to the free throw line 30 times.
They had been 14-7 during the regular season when committing 11 or fewer turnovers and 14-4 with 30 or more free throw attempts. It wasn’t enough.
The same problems that had afflicted the Pelicans throughout the regular season reared their heads once again. The defense could not stop the basketball in the halfcourt or in transition. The offense would find a rhythm and then go away from what had been successful.
And, ultimately, the team was a star short. The offseason will be a gut check for the franchise. Somehow, winning more games this season than last feels unsatisfying and incomplete. The season has ended prematurely considering the expectations. Based on their play, it may be the most fitting ending to a story that has seemed at times to be far stranger than fiction.
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