NEW ORLEANS — For the second consecutive season, the New Orleans Pelicans will have at least one more game to play once the NBA regular season concludes, as they assured themselves of no worse than a play-in spot with a 138-131 overtime victory against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night.
The Pelicans trailed by as many as 19 points before storming back for the win. Before Wednesday, the Pelicans were the only team without a 15-point comeback this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, holding an 0-28 record when trailing by at least 15.
With two regular-season games remaining, the Pelicans are guaranteed at least the ninth seed. They could still move up in the Western Conference standings and avoid the play-in tournament altogether.
“It’s incredible to have an opportunity two years in a row to play in the postseason, the playoffs,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “And, we’re continuing to build. For us it’s a huge step in the right direction.”
The Pelicans almost didn’t secure what almost surely should have been a regulation victory.
New Orleans led 124-118 with 4.7 seconds left when Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks hit a corner 3-pointer while being fouled by Pelicans guard Herb Jones. Brooks intentionally missed the free throw because the Grizzlies were out of timeouts, but the Pelicans secured the rebound.
However, on the ensuing inbounds play, Brandon Ingram was called for an offensive foul and Memphis got the ball back. The Pelicans fouled Desmond Bane with 2.6 seconds remaining and he made the first of his two free throws before intentionally missing the second. Jaren Jackson Jr. pulled down the rebound and got tangled up with Larry Nance Jr., giving Memphis two more free throws with 0.4 left.
Jackson made his free throws to send the game to overtime.
Despite how the fourth quarter ended, Green said his team’s confidence didn’t waver. In spite of some “brain farts,” Green said, the Pelicans felt good about where they were.
“I said, ‘We’ve done this to ourselves,'” Green said of his message to the team going into the extra period. “So that’s No. 1. Let’s go out and win the game. They’re on a back-to-back just like we are. So let’s go out and get it.”
The Pelicans heeded his words, storming out with a 12-0 run to take control in overtime.
New Orleans got an offensive boost from an unlikely source in Jones, who finished with a career-high 35 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks (all on 3-pointers), while also hitting a career-best five 3s.
Because Jones entered the game having shot 32.1% on his 3-pointers this season, Memphis went with a strategy of putting Jackson on Jones and having the Defensive Player of the Year candidate sag off and sit in the lane as much as possible.
Jones said he wanted to make Jackson and the Grizzlies pay for that tactic.
“It’s super important to keep guys honest,” Jones said. “I show up every day and put in a ton of work on my jump shot. I know Jaren. I don’t think he came out and was meaning to be that far off me. That’s probably because of the scheme they drew up because it had worked before.
“But I just kind of felt disrespected because of the work that I put in. I just stayed aggressive, and the shots fell.”
The work Jones has been putting in is paying off. Since March 1, he is shooting 47.8% from deep (22-of-46).
Still, a 35-point performance wasn’t something anyone was expecting. Except maybe one fan inside the Smoothie King Center.
“What’s crazy is, somebody before the game, during our little shooting time said, ‘Alright Herb, get you 30 tonight,'” Pelicans forward Trey Murphy recalled. “We looked and we were like, ‘I mean Herb can score, but like 30 though?’ That’s a lot. And then when we came back to the bench, I looked up and he had 30. I looked at him and said maybe we gotta bring him back for more games.”
Jones’ previous career high was 26 points. His high in four years at Alabama was just 21 points. So when was the last time he had 30 in a game?
“I think this is my all-time high,” Jones said, noting he didn’t think he ever scored 30 in a high school game.
The trio of Jones, Murphy (30 points) and CJ McCollum (31) was the first in Pelicans franchise history to each score at least 30 points in the same game.
All three players also hit at least five 3-pointers. Just hours after New York Knicks teammates Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes became the first trio of teammates in NBA history to each score 30 and hit five 3-pointers, Jones, McCollum and Murphy became the second.
Wednesday’s victory also secured a non-losing season for the Pelicans, who improved to 41-39. With a win in one of their last two games, they can make that a winning season. The team hosts the Knicks on Friday night before traveling to Minnesota for the regular-season finale on Sunday.