C.J. McCollum quickly stepped out and inbounded the ball to Brandon Ingram with less than 10 seconds remaining in their Western Conference play-in game.
The ninth seed New Orleans Pelicans were just a few moments away from successfully staving off a late rally by the 10th place San Antonio Spurs. Their 21-point-lead was whittled down to six midway through the final period, though they managed to stave off the gritty rally.
San Antonio’s star guard Dejounte Murray, despite the eight-point deficit, committed a take foul on Ingram with 7.2 seconds left. It allowed New Orleans’ star forward to put the final touches on their win from the free throw line and he calmly made his two free throws to wrap up a 113-103 victory for the Pelicans.
This now sets them up for a do-or-die match with the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth and final seed of the West playoffs.
That late sequence involving McCollum and Ingram hardly mattered in the grand scheme of the game, given that the win was assured by that point, yet it was symbolic of how the night went for the Pelicans.
McCollum torched the Spurs with 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting in the first half to give them an 11-point lead at the break. New Orleans’ midseason acquisition, a veteran of several postseason battles during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers, was ready for the moment and used his crafty midrange game to set the tone of the contest.
Come the second half, McCollum wound up scoring just five more points to finish with 32. He added six rebounds and seven assists to complete his big night.
With San Antonio’s defense zeroed in on McCollum following his blistering start, it was time for him to pass the baton to Ingram. The 24-year-old pumped in 10 fourth quarter points to seal the victory and inch closer to the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2018.
Ingram has not had a taste of the postseason in his six-year career that started with the Los Angeles Lakers and his hunger was evident down the stretch. When the Spurs pulled within six, 97-91, with slightly over five minutes left in the game, he took over and scored six of the next eight points for the Pelicans.
By then, they were up by 10, 105-95, with less than two minutes remaining on the game clock and it was smooth sailing for them from that point on. Ingram wound up with 27 points, five rebounds, and five assists as he overcame early foul trouble to produce this excellent performance in the biggest game of his professional career so far.
While the spurts of brilliance from McCollum and Ingram caught the most attention during the evening, the win would not have been possible without the consistent inside presence of their starting center Jonas Valanciunas.
Matched up with San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl, his back-up during his early days with the Toronto Raptors, the 29-year-old big man delivered 22 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block. The threat of Valanciunas on the inside kept the Spurs’ defense honest as it limited the ability of their interior defenders to sag off and help cover McCollum or Ingram.
Rookie Herb Jones also continued his strong play on both ends of the court and wound up with 12 points on five-of-seven shooting, five rebounds, two steals, and two blocks. He kept San Antonio on its toes with his timely cuts on offense and he continued to be a menacing help defender on the other end of the court.
The biggest contribution of the 23-year-old forward though was his pesky defense on Murray. Jones hounded San Antonio’s NBA All-Star guard into five-of-19 shooting as he finished with only 16 points, nine rebounds, and five assists which are well below the lofty standards that he has set this year. With Jones throwing Murray out of his rhythm, half of the battle was already won for New Orleans.
Regardless of the result of their play-in finale versus the Clippers, this season is already a resounding win for the Pelicans. They have found success in the absence of Zion Williamson and look primed to make a leap into the next tier of the Western Conference if he can make a successful return in the upcoming season.
Now out of Damian Lillard’s shadow, McCollum has blossomed as a leader while Ingram continues to grow into the high-level scorer that he was projected to become when he was picked second overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. Valanciunas has continued to be a solid presence while Jones is proving to be the type of forward who can start on a title contender.
Awards are not handed out for wins in the play-in, but these games have become a meaningful signpost in a team’s journey to success and this New Orleans team is clearly on the right path.