Zion, Pelicans primed for last-gasp bid to make postseason
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By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Zion Williamson and the mercurial New Orleans Pelicans may yet have something to say about the NBA postseason.
San Antonio's recent five-game skid has helped the Pelicans pull within 1 1/2 games of the final Western Conference play-in spot with six games to go.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans have shaken off seemingly back-breaking losses to win three out of four, with their past two victories each requiring fourth-quarter comebacks.
"It says a lot about our character," Williamson said after Tuesday night's victory over Golden State. "We've been resilient all year long and we're not going to stop now."
The next challenge for the Pelicans requires taking their banged-up squad on the road for five games against certain or potential playoff teams. The trip starts Friday at Eastern Conference leader Philadelphia, where Pelicans second-leading scorer Brandon Ingram will be out of the lineup with a left ankle sprain. It's also unclear when Ingram will return after that.
The Pelicans held practice Thursday before their departure, but in addition to Ingram, those unable to participate included starting center Steven Adams (toe sprain), who is listed as doubtful against the 76ers.
New Orleans also "had some other guys limited in what they could do in practice, so how much we got accomplished I don't really know," coach Stan Van Gundy said.
As long as Ingram is out, the Pelicans might have to rely more on players such as undrafted rookie forward Naji Marshall, who joined the club as a two-way player but performed well enough since Josh Hart's thumb injury to earn a three-year extension to which he agreed on Thursday. Meanwhile, guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who has been out since spraining his ankle in early April, practiced without contact Thursday and was upgraded to questionable for Friday night's game.
Much could also hinge on the play of guard Lonzo Ball, who scored a career-high 33 points in each of the Pelicans' past two wins, but shot 3 of 18 in Monday's loss to Golden State.
Williamson asserted that Ball's recent high-scoring games, which included production from both the field and foul line, "shows that he's improving."
"He finds a way to make things happen. I think that says a lot of about him," Williamson said. "I'm glad he's my teammate. The dude just does what he can to help his team win."
New Orleans' road trip will continue at Charlotte, Memphis, Dallas and Golden State. The Pelicans' lone remaining home game is their season finale against the Los Angeles Lakers.
But while the upcoming slate looks daunting, the Pelicans sound happy to still be in the postseason conversation after a series of recent and sometimes excruciatingly narrow setbacks.
There was a two-point loss in overtime in Washington in mid-April, a five-point loss at home to the injury-riddled Brooklyn Nets on April 20, a two-point home loss to the Spurs on April 24, a two-point loss at Denver on April 28 and a lopsided loss on Monday night to the Warriors.
The Pelicans could have pulled just one game behind Golden State for a play-in spot had they swept a pair of home games against them this week. Instead, a split left New Orleans three games behind the ninth-place Warriors. But Van Gundy was nonetheless pleased to see his squad refusing to fold when they rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Warriors on Tuesday night.
"To me, the biggest positive is our guys' resilience," Van Gundy said. "They keep coming back. And every time people are tempted to sort of write them off and expecting a big letdown, it hasn't happened. So I think that speaks to the character of this group and I don't know if there's anything more important."
For Van Gundy, his team will have a chance if players are committed to performing those tasks beyond simply shooting well that can keep them competitive.
"Winning teams take care of the ball. Winning teams get back on defense," Van Gundy said. "They take charges. They dive on loose balls. They block people out.
"Whether the ball goes in or not and whether the other team makes shots or not - there's things you don't have control over. So, we're not defining winning basketball in terms of the result or the record," Van Gundy added. "We want to play and do the things - focus on the things - that win games. And over the long haul, if you do that enough, it all takes care of itself."
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Updated May 6, 2021