NEW ORLEANS — What started as a promising weekend for the New Orleans Pelicans slowly was turning into a nightmare.
In a pivotal back-to-back set against the two teams they’re battling in the Western Conference play-in race, the Pelicans lost by four points to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, then found themselves down 23 to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night.
But after a 41-point third quarter, the Pelicans pushed through for a 116-108 victory, sliding into ninth place in the West with a half-game lead on the Lakers and a 1½-game lead on the Spurs.
“We made a few adjustments at halftime just challenging our group to be more disciplined,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “We were kind of all over the place. To their credit, they came out and punched us in the mouth right away. We hung in there. We were just resilient all game long. The goal and the key for us is don’t try to get it back at one time. Just one stop. One score at a time. We’re just so proud in the locker room. That was growth.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was the largest blown lead in a game LeBron James has suited up for the Lakers. After the game, he called the loss a “microcosm” of the team’s season.
“We haven’t been able to sustain all year and tonight was one of those instances once again,” James said. “It feels like s—. I mean, excuse my language, but that’s what it feels like. I came in with the mindset understanding it was a playoff-type atmosphere, playoff implications and things of that nature. … It feels like a wasted opportunity, obviously, for myself and for our team. We weren’t able to get it done.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said the team needs to quickly turn the page to Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks in Dallas.
“It hurts. This game hurts. This was a big game,” Vogel said. “But we have to regroup, we have to find a way to beat Dallas and get some wins down the stretch here. Time’s running out on us. We came out with the proper urgency for this game, but weren’t able to close it.”
The performance was stunning because of how Los Angeles dominated the first half. James scored 25 points of his game-high 39 points. The team shot 66.7% from the field and hit 11-of-19 3-pointers. Everything was going the Lakers’ way.
But just as they did in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, the Pelicans used a huge third quarter to shift the momentum. On that date, they outscored the Lakers 44-25 in the quarter. This time, they outscored them, 41-25.
Los Angeles still had a four-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but New Orleans took that for good on a Brandon Ingram pull-up jumper with 5:01 to go.
“It shows that we believe in each other,” Ingram said. “We were down and facing adversity in that moment when LeBron was getting everything he wanted. Everybody stayed poised. We executed. Guys made some big-time plays down the stretch on the defensive end.”
Ingram had missed 10 consecutive games with a right hamstring strain. He was limited to just under 26 minutes but responded with 26 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“It’s good to have him back, No. 1,” Green said. “We missed him. The things that he does on the floor is unbelievable. His size, his strength, his ability to shoot over the top of guys. I think more than anything, our guys are understanding the moment.”
The Pelicans also had CJ McCollum (sprained left ankle) and Jonas Valanciunas (right foot foreness) play after each was a game-time decision. McCollum had 18 points, and Valanciunas finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
New Orleans almost lost Jaxson Hayes in the first quarter after he dislocated his left index finger, but he returned with his fingers taped together on his left hand.
But perhaps the biggest lift of the Pelicans’ night came from rookie Trey Murphy, who had 21 points, all in the second half. Murphy scored 16 of those in the third quarter as New Orleans started its comeback.
“I just think he’s been preparing for these moments,” Green said. “Played in some G League games. The hard work and getting to the gym and working on his craft. He’s been improving more and more as the season has progressed. We needed all of his 21 tonight. We’re proud of him.”
Murphy’s minutes have been inconsistent this season, but once Ingram went down with the hamstring injury, he was recalled from the G League to receive major rotational minutes. In the last 10 games, Murphy is averaging 9.9 points while shooting 48.7% from deep.
“Just be confident and know that’s what they drafted you for,” Murphy said. “I shot it at a high level my last year in college, and I’ve continued to work on that and got better. For our team to win, I have to contribute somehow. Shooting is definitely a way I can do that.”
The Pelicans have seven games remaining, including five on the road. They start a four-game road trip Wednesday against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The game after that? A trip to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers for the final time this season.
Green knows the confidence from Sunday’s win could go a long way in determining if the Pelicans have postseason play ahead of them.
“We could possibly see one of those teams again,” Green said. “This was a great momentum builder for our group.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.