Pelicans, hawks cap wild play-in tournament with comebacks

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LOS ANGELES — Brandon Ingram dribbled out the clock, stomped the basketball off the hardwood and watched as his New Orleans Pelicans teammates stormed the court.

The jubilant scene capped a shaky victory over the Los Angeles Clippers that capped an exciting week of play-in tournament play ahead of the playoffs that begin Saturday.

In Minnesota on Tuesday, Patrick Beverley climbed onto the scoring table and threw his jersey into the crowd at the Target Center as the Timberwolves secured their first playoff appearance since 2018 with a win over the Clippers. Wednesday in New Orleans, the Smoothie King Center crowd donned matching red T-shirts to cheer the Pelicans past the San Antonio Spurs. And earlier Friday, Trae Young silenced the street crowd by scoring a game-high 38 points in a dramatic 107-101 comeback win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and sending the Atlanta Hawks to a first-round date with the Miami Heat.

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But the play-in tournament saved its best for last as the Pelicans and Clippers battled it out at the Crypto.com Arena for the right to play the top seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round. Ingram posted a game-high 30 points and led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter, scoring seven points in the final third and setting up Jonas Valanciunas for a game-sealing dunk in the dying seconds of a 105-101 win.

“It’s our time,” said Ingram, 24, after making the playoffs for the first time in his six-year career. “All the work we put in every day and all the work we put in this summer we can finally present on the biggest stage. I’m excited.”

The Clippers went to court just hours after receiving the bitter news: Paul George had tested positive for the coronavirus and would be sidelined for do-or-die play. In George’s absence, the Pelicans built a 16-point first-half lead thanks to Ingram, who had 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first quarter. While the Clippers seemed overwhelmed at the start, they settled down and drew within 10 points at halftime.

With his season in limbo, Clippers manager Ty Lue made his favorite adjustment to open the second half, replacing center Ivica Zubac with forward Robert Covington. Lue used the strategy to great effect in last year’s playoffs, sacrificing size and rebounds to maximize his team’s offensive firepower and defensive versatility.

The Clippers quickly demolished a 38-18 in the third quarter and went into the closing stages with a 10-point lead of their own. Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris led by 27 points each at the end, and Nicolas Batum kept Ingram at bay with momentum throughout the run. The home crowd, eager for a 10th playoff appearance for the past 11 seasons, showed their appreciation by making the wave during a time-out.

“Simply the BEST coach in the game!” Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said about Lue on Twitter. “FIGHT with your children, not with me.”

All season Los Angeles had cheated death by digging itself out of impossible holes. Lue had no choice but to lean into the small-ball rollercoaster: Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ stabilizing presence, was sidelined for the full season following knee surgery, while George was limited to just 31 games with an elbow injury. Often thriving in the chaos caused by their frenetic style, the Clippers notched a 35-point comeback win over the Washington Wizards in January and a 25-point comeback against the Utah Jazz in March.

Ingram and CJ McCollum, who scored seven of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, kept the Pelicans off that list. The New Orleans star duo enjoyed a big boost from reserve guard Trey Murphy, who hit three threes on the fourth-quarter comeback, and Larry Nance Jr., who made several timely hustle plays.

“It was like a heavyweight fight, seriously,” said Pelicans coach Willie Green. “[Lue] made adjustments. He took out his bigs and we tried to get used to it. It didn’t work for us, so we put our bigs back in. That didn’t work for us either, so we threw darts at the dartboard just to find out.”

Los Angeles ran out of gas in the closing minutes, unable to look good or close defensive possessions with rebounds. There were no sour grapes for the Clippers, who were eliminated despite having a six-game lead over the Pelicans by the end of the regular season.

Lue said George’s absence was “no excuse” and he insisted the Clippers have known the unforgiving format of the play-in tournament all season.

“I’m not a fan of the play-in,” Morris said. “But we should have won one of those games [against the Timberwolves and Pelicans], and we would have been in the playoffs. That’s all I can really say.”

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While the Clippers looked forward to the healthy returns of Leonard and George next year, the Pelicans enjoyed their first postseason appearance since 2018, a feat they accomplished without star forward Zion Williamson, who missed the entire season with a foot injury . New Orleans owner Gayle Benson, executive David Griffin and other Front Office members traveled to Los Angeles where they were rewarded with a brave and exhilarating victory.

“It’s a sign of growth and maturity for a young group,” McCollum said. “Typically, teams lie down and fold. When faced with an elimination game, a team often begins to let go of the rope. I felt we did a great job holding on to the rope and keeping fighting.”

Much like Young’s Hawks, who only have a day off before Game 1 against the Heat on Sunday, the Pelicans won’t be able to celebrate for long. The Suns are rested, tested and set to make the finals for the second year in a row.

Therein lies a final benefit of the play-in tournament, which has helped improve the quality of the game and increase television ratings during the dog days of the regular season. Fringe playoff teams spend months vainly chasing elite competitors and rarely pull off first-round upsets.

The Pelicans and Hawks could easily have thrown in the towel before the All-Star break or collapse under the pressure on Friday. It was nice to see their resilience being rewarded with a real sense of accomplishment, even if it was just for one night in mid-April.

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