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A franchise player absent for the season. A freshman head coach. A 1-12 start. The New Orleans Pelicans overcame it all and came back strong to make the playoffs.
Brandon Ingram scored 30 points and the Pelicans recovered from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the exhausted Los Angeles Clippers 105-101 in a Friday night play-in and earn the No. 8 seed in the West.
“That win was huge,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said.
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New Orleans lost a 16-point first-half lead and didn’t take the lead for good until the final 4 1/2 minutes of the game.
“It was an emotional game, a ton of ups and downs,” Green said. “But for us, our mentality is that we’re going to keep fighting. We’re not going to go away.”
The Pelicans made the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18, led by Green, a former Clipper. They’ve been without Zion Williamson all season with a foot injury.
“Starting with 1-12 and 3-16, you wonder when it’s going to resume?” said rookie Trey Murphy. “Being my first year, I don’t know what it’s like to win. Look at us now.”
CJ McCollum added 19 points and Larry Nance Jr. had 14 points and 16 rebounds for New Orleans, which will face No. 1-seeded Phoenix in the first round. Game 1 is Sunday in the desert.
“This team is resilient,” said Nance, who was traded, along with McCollum, from Portland in February and recently returned from knee surgery. “They started 1-12. It’s so hard to get back up. I’ve had seasons like that, it’s hard to keep going and keep fighting for that.”
The Clippers received a major blow earlier in the day when Paul George entered league health and safety protocols. They had already been without Kawhi Leonard all season while he was nursing an ACL injury. He watched from the bench early in the game.
Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson each had 27 points for the Clippers.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t make the playoffs no matter who was playing,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who is missing the playoffs for the first time as head coach.
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The Pelicans shot 57% in the first half and were better on the boards, in the paint and off the bench. They led by 16 in the second quarter before the Clippers cut their deficit to 56-46 at halftime.
The Clippers roared in the third, outscoring the Pelicans 38-18. They started off with a 20-2 run that got the crowd going. Jackson scored 10 points and Morris added six in stride.
Robert Covington started third in place of 7-footer Ivica Zubac and his three-point play gave the Clippers a 75-62 lead, their biggest of the game.
Ingram scored five of the Pelicans’ last 12 points to send them into fourth behind 84-74.
“You just have to trust each other and stay connected,” Green said of the Pelicans’ mindset. “Knowing that we took their best shot and only lost 10 before the fourth.”
That’s when New Orleans held its own rally.
After the Clippers scored to go up 13 points, the Pelicans ran for 11 straight, then McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie, 88-all.
Murphy hit his second 3-pointer of the quarter for another tie at 94-all.
It sparked a 10-0 run that gave the Pelicans a 101-94 lead, capped off by Murphy’s 3-pointer bouncing off the rim and entering. He was one of three recruits who contributed.
“Murphy had huge rocks coming in and making those big shots he needed when he was having trouble scoring the basketball,” Lue said.
The Clippers closed twice on short notice in the 1:17 Final, but they missed 2 of 4 free throws and Jackson and Morris missed shots in the stretch to see their season slip away.
“I thought our guys were a little tired,” Lue said. “We didn’t keep attacking.”
The Clippers, who reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history last year, were also missing Luke Kennard. The league’s leading 3-point percentage didn’t play because of a sore right hamstring that kept him from losing to Minnesota on Tuesday in the team’s first qualifying game.
Pelicans: They won the season series, 3-1.
Clippers: Hadn’t missed the playoffs since the 2017-18 season. …Nicolas Batum and Terance Mann started in place of George and Kennard…Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations, said Leonard “continues to make progress in his rehab,” but there is no timetable for his return.
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The Pelicans were 1-3 against the Suns this season.