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Pelicans outlast Clippers in wild play-in, to face Suns in playoffs

The Pelicans wanted to get their talented young forward postseason experience rather than wallow in the lottery another year.

Given sufficient support, he delivered.

Brandon Ingram scored 30 points to lead New Orleans over the Clippers, 105-101, in a thrilling winner-take-all play-in game Friday in L.A. Up 16 then down 13 then ahead at the end, the Pelicans will ride those seismic swings into the playoffs to face the Suns with Game 1 Sunday in Phoenix.

The reverberations of tonight’s result will be felt even further out for years to come.

New Orleans (36-46) has the worst record for a playoff team since the 2004 Celtics and worst record for a Western Conference playoff team since the 1997 Clippers, both of whom also went 36-46.

The Pelicans probably won’t significantly challenge the mighty Suns, but New Orleans got two exciting play-in games (a home win over the Spurs and tonight’s victory) plus some high-stakes playoff games ahead. As the NBA tries to dissuade teams from tanking, the Pelicans are a model for the appeal of the play-in tournament.

After starting the season 1-12, the Pelicans climbed back in the expanded postseason race then really stimulated their season by trading with the Trail Blazers. New Orleans landed C.J. McCollum (who came up big down the stretch of the regular season) and Larry Nance Jr. (who arrived injured but stepped up tonight with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 15 rebounds and four assists). In exchange, the Pelicans agreed to send their 2022 first-round pick provided it landed 5-14 to Portland.

But by making the playoffs, New Orleans won’t pick in that low-lottery range. So, the Trail Blazers must settle for the Bucks’ 2025 top-five-protected first-rounder. With Giannis Antetokounmpo locked into his super-max contract and continuing to develop, Milwaukee will probably land a pretty low pick. (If the Bucks somehow get a top-five pick in 2025, Portland will get nothing.) So, that’s a pretty steep value drop for the Trail Blazers, who could have used that New Orleans pick to upgrade their roster.

Portland’s loss is Charlotte’s gain. Owning the Pelicans’ lottery-protected 2022 first-rounder from the Devonte’ Graham sign-and-trade, the Hornets will get the No. 15 pick this year rather than two second-rounders.

The Clippers – who went 42-40, their 11 straight winning season – won’t even get the silver lining of falling into the lottery. They owe their unprotected first-round pick to the Thunder. L.A. will just hope for better health next year from Kawhi Leonard (who missed the entire season with a torn ACL) and Paul George (who missed much of the season with an elbow injury then tonight’s game with coronavirus).

Of course, the Pelicans caught a break with George sidelined. But they gave themselves an opportunity to catch a break by trying so hard to win immediately.

Really, both these teams showed impressive fight amid adversity.

The Clippers got outscored by 14 points in 19 minutes with a traditional center (Ivica Zubac or Isaiah Hartenstein) on the floor early. But L.A. turned the game by going small. The Clippers played tighter defense with more hyperactivity and switching, forcing New Orleans out of rhythm and into clanked jumper after clanked jumper. L.A. ran in transition and whizzed through halfcourt sets with newfound verve. The Pelicans couldn’t keep up. The Clippers went on a 25-2 run over the second and third quarters.

While Clippers coach Tyronn Lue looked genius, the Pelicans’ Willie Green looked like the rookie coach he is. New Orleans initially resisted going small but didn’t use center Jonas Valanciunas to punish L.A. inside. Ball movement stagnated amid lineups producing cramped spacing. Dusting off Tony Snell led to Snell immediately resulted in Snell hitting the side of the backboard on a 3-pointer.

But L.A.'s stylistic change took a toll.

Using a shorter rotation and having smaller players handle more physically, the Clippers looked like they ran out of gas. Meanwhile, the Pelicans eventually found a small lineup that worked for them, crashed the offensive glass hard and got hot shooting from rookie Trey Murphy (4-of-6 on 3-pointers).

What a satisfying result for everyone who helped New Orleans make this incredible turnaround.

As for Zion Williamson, the Pelicans’ other talented young forward who said before the season that missing the playoffs isn’t happening again but has missed the entire season due to injury? He’s reportedly not returning against the Suns, though every dunk stirs speculation.