Pelicans seek fifth straight win in clash with Thunder

National Sports

After not having much success in tight games over the first part of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans have turned their fortunes around during their current four-game winning streak.

Over the Pelicans’ first 29 games, they were just 1-9 in “clutch” games — games where the score is within five points in the final five minutes.

But starting with New Orleans’ 113-110 win in Oklahoma City on Dec. 15, a game decided by Devonte’ Graham’s 61-foot shot at the buzzer, the Pelicans are 3-0 in such games.

“We’re growing,” Graham said. “We really didn’t know too much coming in — how to finish games, who the go-to guys were. Defensively, we weren’t communicating. Guys just started to get more confident and more vocal. We’re growing as a team.”

Sunday, New Orleans tries to keep its momentum going with a return trip to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City.

“I think early on in the season, we had close games, but we couldn’t finish,” the Pelicans’ Josh Hart said. “In the fourth quarter, we got stagnant, we got slow and we weren’t executing.

“We want to play fast, even in the fourth quarter. But if we’re not doing that, we’ve realized we have to be precise in terms of execution and attention to detail to get to our spots, do it with pace and make reads. I feel like that’s something we’ve done a great job of.”

The Pelicans haven’t won five consecutive games since a 10-game streak during the 2017-18 season.

The Thunder are coming off a 113-101 loss Thursday in Phoenix that snapped a three-game winning streak.

While the Pelicans have struggled much of the season with close games, Oklahoma City is 9-7 in clutch games. The Thunder are 2-13 in other games.

Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said his team relishes such situations.

“That’s what’s so encouraging about our team, when we’re faced with challenges, it seems to bring out a spirit that shows that these guys see challenges as opportunities,” Daigneault said. “Competition’s not for the weary, so if you shy away from those challenges or you view challenges as a threat, then the NBA will chew you up and spit you out. We don’t have a team that does that.

“We have a team that, when faced with challenges or when we get knocked down, our team sees it as an opportunity, sees it as a challenge. That’s a really good place to start.”

Since lifting the Thunder to one of those clutch wins, with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer Dec. 18 against the Clippers, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has struggled from beyond the 3-point line, going just 2 of 18.

But Gilgeous-Alexander has found other ways to be effective, averaging 26.3 points, 7.7 assists and 7.0 rebounds over the last three games.

The Pelicans figure to be without Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Naji Marshall. The pair both entered the league’s health and safety protocols before Thursday’s game in Orlando.

New Orleans was also without starting center Jonas Valancuinas in that game due to a non-COVID-19 illness.

–Field Level Media

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