SVG deserves a lot of credit for the Pelicans’ opening night win. His players do too.

By the time you read this, the New Orleans Pelicans will be preparing to play a highly publicized Christmas Day game on ESPN on the road to face the Miami Heat. 

I can’t predict the future but defeating the reigning Eastern Conference Champions will be a tough order. However, after Wednesday night’s opening 113-99 win on the road against the Toronto Raptors, and as I write this on Christmas Eve, there is an optimism felt for the young new-look Pelicans that anything is possible, a feeling that hasn’t been present for Big Easy basketball faithful since superstar Anthony Davis forced his way out of town in favor of Hollywood. 

Despite, a few good moments, the last eight years of Pelicans basketball has felt like the NBA equivillant of Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, repetitive tragedy on a comedic level. Everything about Wednesday’s game to open the regular season seemed like a familiar script for failure fans in New Orleans and the Gulf South have forced themselves to witness over and over again. The star duo of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, despite a lot of hype, didn’t start the game too hot. Point guard Lonzo Ball, who fans desperately want to see a breakout year from, committed turnovers and started slow. The one saving grace for the Pelicans on offense in the first half was guard Eric Bledsoe, a former league star that fans on Twitter didn’t even seem to want after the departure of Jrue Holiday. Bledsoe was keeping his squad alive by shooting out of Toronto’s zone from beyond the arc and making scoring plays off the dribble. If it weren’t for Bledsoe, and frontcourt activity by newly acquired center Steven Adams, the Pelicans looked dead on arrival. Despite all of their issues, the Pelicans were only down 57-50 at halftime. 

Fans were sure of what was going to happen next, the trademark Pelicans third quarter collapse.

Toronto kept shrinking the floor through zone defense in the third quarter and offensively they were pushing. A few times they’d gain a 10-point lead and the dam looked like it would soon break as the minutes ticked down in the third. 

Then something amazing happened… Coach Stan Van Gundy called a timeout early in the second half.

In years past, fans have observed the Pelicans be one of the worst responding teams coming out of a timeout despite that action being reserved for coaches to have an opportunity to throw a wrench in their opponent’s run and change the complexion of the game. After Van Gundy’s first second-half timeout, the players, who didn’t have a reputation for being capable of this before, responded promptly to their coach’s adjustments and Ball and Bledsoe hit three 3-pointers, sparking a 9-0 run. When the Pelicans looked to have their wings clipped again, losing ground in the chase for the lead, Van Gundy called a second timeout later in the third quarter and Ball and Ingram came alive to go on a 10-2 run and gain a 88-79 lead heading into the final quarter. The Pelicans scored a total of 38 points in the third quarter. 

Ingram finished the game one rebound shy of a triple double, earning a stat line of 24 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds. 

Four starters scored in double figures and veteran guard J.J. Redick scored 23 points off the bench against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, a team that’s held the league’s best record in a collective of the last five years. 

There has been some roster has changes for this team, but not a majority of the core. We saw a head coach with a career record of over .500 on Wednesday night make in-game adjustments. This is an element we haven’t seen shine prominently in recent years. Even more importantly, Van Gundy’s players responded and wasted no time doing so. They are scoring. They are playing defense. They are bought-in to Van Gundy. 

“We did finish well against an opponent that knows how to win,” Van Gundy said in a post-game conference on Zoom. “I felt like I set some adjustments defensively and our players executed well.”

That’s a simple explanation but that’s what the game is all about and those fundamentals are settling in. It only works if the group is a unit. 

If this final product becomes a consistent one, the Stan Van Gundy future of the New Orleans Pelicans looks bright. 

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