“We just looked at each other like ‘We’re straight,'” Pelicans forward Zion Williamson said.
Having already beaten the Kings two times this season in New Orleans, the Pelicans expected Sacramento to punch early. The key, CJ McCollum said, was to not get knocked out.
Coach Willie Green’s game plan at the time was simple: one stop, one score, one stop, one score — that repeated enough times would bring the Pelicans right back into the game, which they eventually won 127-117 to advance to the tournament semifinals in Las Vegas.
“The biggest thing I saw in that game was trust,” Green said. “Our guys just stuck together, they stuck together in the huddle, and they continued to make the right play over, and over and over again. When you see a team that has 29 assists and only 14 turnovers, that’s a team that’s continuing to trust. We want to continue to build on that.”
Monday’s game saw the healthiest version of the Pelicans all season, with just Larry Nance Jr. sidelined. A team source told ESPN that now that they have nearly their entire roster available, the Pelicans can finally show who they really are, and make a run.
New Orleans had six players finish in double-digit scoring Monday night, led by Brandon Ingram‘s 30 points. Herbert Jones added 23, followed by Jonas Valanciunas with 18, McCollum 17 and Trey Murphy III 16.
Williamson finished with just 10 points, his fewest in a game in his career in which he played 25 minutes or more.
“With the shooters we’ve added, it definitely does take pressure off of me,” Williamson said. “I didn’t play too well, but we were still up 13, 18 late in the game. This just shows how locked in everybody is. Coach always talks about staying ready. Our guys stayed ready.”
The Pelicans also had four players with 10 points and five assists, tied for their most in a game in franchise history.
“It’s extremely important,” McCullom said when asked about not needing to rely on just one player to dominate a game. “That’s how you compete for championships, that’s how you win playoff games and that’s how you win in the half court — having multiple guys.”
Sacramento wanted to throw double-teams at Williamson, in addition to “throwing the kitchen sink at him,” as coach Mike Brown said before the game. And the Kings did limit him, as he scored just two points in the first half.
But the numerous other threats allowed the Pelicans to get going after withstanding the Kings’ first run. After falling behind by 15 early, New Orleans closed the first quarter on an 18-4 run. Midway through the second quarter, the Pelicans led by as many as 13.
But the Pelicans had answers for everything.
New Orleans shot 54% from the field, its second-best field goal percentage in a game this season. The only time the Pelicans shot better was Nov. 20, when they shot 54.3% against this same Kings team.
“It sucks, definitely disappointing — a game like this at home with a chance for us to get some revenge on a team that beat us pretty good at their place and an opportunity to go to Vegas,” Kings guard Kevin Huerter said. “They had a lot of guys that were out at their place who were effective tonight. We did a good job on Zion but Ingram had it going all game. Their bench was great — a big reason they came back.”
Heurter said the construction of the Pelicans’s roster — their size up front, combined with their shooting depth and ability to score in the paint and their defensive abilities makes them a unique and difficult challenge, especially when healthy.
And he’s not the only person in the NBA to realize that.
“With their complete roster,” a league source told ESPN, “they are the team that I could see challenging the Denver Nuggets for the top team in the West.”
There is still a long way to go before New Orleans can challenge Denver — or any other team — for the Western Conference, but going to Las Vegas to compete for the first NBA Cup is an opportunity for the Pelicans to show who they are.
“This team can be so great,” Williamson said. “We have a lot of potential, but we have a lot of growth (we need) to do … But overall we can do something really special if everybody stays locked in. We can do something really special.”