NEW ORLEANS — Wherever CJ McCollum goes in New Orleans right now, he says he feels the buzz in the city about the Pelicans.
On Wednesday, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Smoothie King Center, that carried over as the Pelicans walked away with a 113-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to advance in the NBA’s play-in tournament.
“This is the start of something special, for sure,” McCollum said. “You see the energy. Feel the energy. My mother is in town; I have some family in town. When we go out to eat, you can feel the city is excited about basketball, as they should [be]. There’s a lot of talent here. We’re playing the game the right way. It’s going to be a lot of winning in our future.”
McCollum got off to a fast start against the Spurs, scoring 27 points in the first half, including 19 in the second quarter when he was a perfect 7-of-7 from the field.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said McCollum was a steadying and calming force for the team throughout the night.
“We just got the ball to him, and he made play after play, score after score,” Green said. “The rest of the guys started to feed off CJ. He’s been in these moments. He’s played on the big stage. It’s no coincidence that he goes out and has the game that he has.”
McCollum finished with a game-high 32 points.
“I understood the magnitude of this game,” McCollum said. “The Spurs are always going to go on a run at some point. They are well-coached. They execute. They have a lot of great players who can shoot and score. When you get a chance to get up double digits, you have to put the pedal to the metal and try and be aggressive.”
McCollum also understood how and when to get others involved.
Brandon Ingram missed the previous three games and 13 of the past 18 with a right hamstring issue. So the Pelicans got Ingram the ball early, and he had 11 of his 27 points in the first quarter.
Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas had five points at halftime, and New Orleans fed him the ball in the third quarter, when he went for 12 of his 22.
“Just continuing to talk to them when I need to. Understanding what we’re trying to execute,” McCollum said when asked how he was a calming factor in the game. “We need to get the ball out and slow the game down. Get the ball to JV. Telling BI get to the middy and don’t settle for 3. Be aggressive and attack the basket. We got in the bonus early. And then picking my spots. I try to be more aggressive in the playoffs, try to get downhill a little bit more.”
The Pelicans will play at the LA Clippers on Friday night for a chance to advance to the playoffs as the eighth seed and take on the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.
If the Pelicans do advance, they would become the fourth team in NBA history to make the playoffs after starting 1-12 or worse and the first since the Suns accomplished the feat in 1996-97.
“It’s fun. It’s exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever been in Smoothie King where it was that many people in here,” Ingram said. “It shows how far we came, starting off 1-12. Having a chance to make the playoffs is a blessing. We just have to keep going, keep our focus. But I loved the energy in the Smoothie King Center.”
While this was McCollum’s first time experiencing the noise levels as a Pelican, he did remember the arena getting loud like that in the past — particularly when the Pelicans swept his Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.
He is hopeful that Wednesday night’s effort is indicative of what the team will be able to do moving forward.
“I’m happy about it. I’m excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously, we have to try and take care of business in L.A., but when we get back here, I’m looking forward to seeing more sellouts. And we’ll reward them with a high level of play, high level of energy. We’ll leave it all out there on the court.”
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