Willy Hernangomez shoots a layup at Minnesota

Comeback win over Wolves sets stage for critical Pelicans-Warriors series

by Jim Eichenhofer

Any realistic chance to extend their season beyond mid-May seemed to be slipping away Saturday, but during a fourth-quarter timeout, New Orleans players experienced a bit of a soul-searching moment.

Zion Williamson: “We looked at each other in the huddle and said, ‘Are we going to give up, or are we going to fight?’ ”

Something similar could’ve been asked recently about the 2020-21 season in general for the Pelicans, who were counted out of the Western Conference play-in race by many, after they slipped to four games behind Golden State. But New Orleans breathed life back into its postseason hopes by winning at Oklahoma City and Minnesota, the latter in extreme nerve-racking fashion. The Pelicans trailed by 10 points with 3:30 left and two on their final possession of regulation, but center Willy Hernangomez came up with the biggest basket of the season to tie it. In overtime, New Orleans rode Williamson to a 140-136 victory.

As a result, the Pelicans (29-35) are three games behind the Warriors (32-32) heading into a pivotal Monday/Tuesday back-to-back between the teams in the Smoothie King Center. New Orleans also has a May 14 matchup remaining vs. Golden State in San Francisco. The oddity of the entire three-game series between the Pelicans and Warriors being scheduled for May has the effect of giving New Orleans much greater control of its fate than it otherwise would have.

“It helps a lot that our destiny is in our hands,” said guard Lonzo Ball, who scored a career-high 33 points Saturday. “We don’t really have to worry about anybody else. It all depends on us. We have three games against them. It’s not going to be easy at all. We know it’s a tough task. But it’s possible. And that’s all we can ask for – a chance. We’re going to come in Monday ready to go.”

“I love that. Our fate is not in anybody else’s hands,” Williamson said of not needing to scoreboard-watch during three of the team’s final eight games. “It’s on us to go out there and get the win. You can’t ask for anything better than that, in the situation we’re currently in. Our fate is in our hands – we’ve just got to make it happen.”

New Orleans was pleased to keep it a three-game deficit from 10th place Saturday, needing to rally against a recently-hot Minnesota team that’s given the Pelicans fits all season. It sets up what will be one of the most important games played in the Smoothie King Center since New Orleans’ 2018 trip to the second round of the playoffs. But as Stan Van Gundy noted in Minneapolis, every result is very significant now. The only thing that can ensure that the Pelicans continue to play in consequential contests is for them to keep winning.

“Well, this was the biggest game of the season,” Van Gundy said of the win over the Timberwolves, “and now Monday will be the biggest game of the season. One of the things we talk about, especially where we are (in the standings), they’re all big.

“We can’t afford very many losses. Obviously we’re fighting with Golden State, so everybody will focus on that. But if you give away a game tonight, it just gets further and further out of reach. Tonight was the biggest game of the year. Then on Monday, that will be the biggest game of the year.”

For a New Orleans team with three starters and countless reserves who’ve never been to the NBA playoffs – including five players in their rookie or second seasons – the experience of performing in a crucial late-season game Monday on ESPN’s airwaves will be new at the pro level. Williamson and Ball are looking forward to the opportunity.

“I think it’s great for us, in the sense that it’s almost like a practice feeling for the guys, like myself, who haven’t been to the playoffs,” Williamson said of facing Golden State thrice over an 11-day span. “Playing the same team three times in a short period of time, it will be like a great practice on our mindset and mental (approach) on getting ready for the games.”

“I love playing like this, especially with the pressure,” Ball said. “I feel like I play better. I feel blessed to be in this position, to finally be here, playing in these big games.”

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