NEW ORLEANS — Wherever CJ McCollum goes in New Orleans, he says he can sense the excitement in the city around the pelicans.
On Wednesday, to a packed audience at the Smoothie King Center, that continued as the Pelicans walked away with a 113-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs to advance in the NBA’s play-in tournament.
“This is definitely the start of something special,” McCollum said. “You see the energy. Feel the energy. My mom is in town; I have family in town. When we go out to eat, you can feel the town is passionate about basketball like they should be [be]. There is a lot of talent here. We’re playing the game right. There will be a lot to gain in our future.”
McCollum got off to a quick start against Spurs, scoring 27 points in the first half, including 19 in the second quarter when he was a perfect 7-of-7 team.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said McCollum was a stabilizing and reassuring force for the team throughout the night.
“We just gave him the ball and he made game after game, goal after goal,” said Green. “The rest of the guys started feeding on CJ. He was in those moments. He played on the big stage. It’s no coincidence that he goes out and has the game he has.”
McCollum finished the game with a game-high 32 points.
“I understood the scale of this game,” McCollum said. “Spurs are always going to have a run at some point. They’re well trained. They’re running. They’ve got a lot of great players who can shoot and score. If you get a chance to go up in double digits, you’ve got it.” Go full throttle and try to be aggressive.”
McCollum also understood how and when to involve others.
Brandon Ingram missed the last three games and 13 of the last 18 with a right hamstring problem. The Pelicans got Ingram on the ball early and he had 11 of his 27 points in the first quarter.
Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas had five points at halftime, and New Orleans fed him the ball in the third quarter when he scored 12 of his 22.
“I just keep talking to them if I have to. Understand what we’re trying to execute,” McCollum said when asked how he was a calming factor in the game. “We need to get the ball out and slow the game down. Bring the ball to JV. Tell BI to go in the middle and don’t settle for 3. Be aggressive and attack the basket. We have the bonus get early. And then I pick my seats. I try to be more aggressive in the playoffs, try to get a little bit more downhill.
The Pelicans will play the LA Clippers on Friday night for a chance to advance to the playoffs as the 8th seed and take on the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.
If the Pelicans advance, they would become the fourth team in NBA history to make the playoffs after starting 1-12 or worse, and the first since the Suns accomplished that feat in 1996-97.
“It is fun. It is exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Smoothie King with so many people in here,” Ingram said. “It shows how far we’ve come, we started at 1:12. Having a chance to make the playoffs is a blessing. We just have to keep going, keep our focus. But I loved the energy at Smoothie King Center.”
While this was McCollum’s first time experiencing the noise levels as a Pelican, he recalled that the arena had gotten so noisy in the past — particularly when the Pelicans swept his Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.
He’s confident Wednesday night’s effort is an indication of what the team will be able to move forward.
“I’m excited about it. I’m excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously we have to try to take care of the business in LA but when we come back here I look forward to more sell outs. And we will reward them with a high level of play and a lot of energy. We leave everything out on the pitch.”