New Orleans is defying all the odds.
The Pelicans are the first team in 46 years to finish a season 10 or more games under .500, then go on to win at least two playoff games – and that doesn’t even count the two play-in game victories just to officially reach the postseason.
The last team to pull off such a trick was the Detroit Pistons, who were 36-46 when they won four playoff games over two different series in the 1976 playoffs.
But New Orleans has changed that, and made it look easy at times.
The Pelicans went 36-46 and finished 28 games behind the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the standings this season. That doesn’t matter now, not with their first-round playoff series tied 2-2 heading into the pivotal Game 5 at Phoenix on Tuesday night.
”I feel it’s our time,” New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram said. ”We worked so hard throughout the year to become a better team.”
The Pelicans-Suns game is one of three on Tuesday’s schedule: Top-seeded Miami looks to close out eighth-seeded Atlanta in Game 5 of that series, and second-seeded Memphis plays host to seventh-seeded Minnesota in Game 5 of that knotted-up matchup.
Phoenix led 53-34 at halftime of Game 1 against New Orleans. The Pelicans have outscored the Suns in nine of the 14 quarters played in the series since. And in the 2 1/2 games since Phoenix lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury, the Pelicans have outscored the Suns 277-257.
In Game 4, New Orleans rattled the top seed down the stretch. Suns guard Chris Paul had three types of fouls – personal, flagrant and technical – in a 99-second span in the fourth quarter, as the Pelicans were pulling away to a series-tying win.
”I’ll be better in Game 5,” Paul said. ”Gotta be.”
If not, the Suns could face an elimination game on the road in Game 6.
Trae Young is already facing one in Game 5.
Atlanta’s leading scorer has more turnovers (24) than field goals (20) through four games. He took 11 shots in the Hawks’ Game 4 home loss on Sunday, and 10 of them were from 3-point range.
”I’ll figure it out,” Young said.
Memphis and Minnesota are now playing a best-of-three series, both having gone 1-1 on the other’s home floor. Game 5 winners in a 2-2 series have a huge statistical advantage, and Grizzlies guard Ja Morant – who has been dealing with a thigh issue – says he’s not as explosive as he wants to be.
”I can be honest right now. I’m not Ja right now,” Morant said.
HAWKS AT HEAT
Miami leads 3-1. Game 5, 7 p.m. EDT, NBA TV.
– NEED TO KNOW: The Hawks already have won two elimination games, thanks to the play-in tournament. But neither has come against a team like Miami, which has Jimmy Butler (30.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.8 spg) playing at a very high level.
– KEEP AN EYE ON: Young. He’s been held to single-digit scoring in two of the four games, and he almost certainly will come out far more aggressive in Game 5.
– INJURY WATCH: Heat PG Kyle Lowry (hamstring) will miss his second consecutive game. Young tweaked an ankle in Game 4, but Hawks coach Nate McMillan said he was fine Monday.
– PRESSURE IS ON: Miami. A team with injuries (Lowry) and nagging aches and pains (just about everybody else) would obviously benefit from time off before Round 2. The last thing the Heat need is to go back to Atlanta and give the Hawks hope.
TIMBERWOLVES AT GRIZZLIES
Series tied 2-2. Game 5, 7:30 p.m. EDT, TNT
– NEED TO KNOW: Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is coming off the highest-scoring playoff game of his career with 33 points, 13 of those coming in the fourth of Game 4. If that version of Towns shows up for Game 5, advantage Minnesota.
– KEEP AN EYE ON: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Grizzlies. Morant is shooting 9 of 31 over the past two games, and Jackson has totaled 13 points in those contests.
– INJURY WATCH: Morant said he was ”almost there” when asked if he was healthy after Game 4. And even though he’s not shooting well of late, his rebound and assist numbers are making huge impacts as well.
– PRESSURE IS ON: There’s plenty to go around. Minnesota has a chance to grab control and get a closeout game at home. Memphis can’t expect to lose twice at home and advance.
PELICANS AT SUNS
Series tied 2-2. Game 5, 10 p.m. EDT, TNT
– NEED TO KNOW: In the 16-team NBA playoff format, in place since 1984, teams with a 36-46 record or worse had a combined 3-28 record in conference quarterfinal games before this season. Most teams in that situation got swept. And yet here are the Pelicans, in a 2-2 tie.
– KEEP AN EYE ON: How the game is called. Game 4 got very chippy down the stretch, so expect New Orleans’ Jose Alvarado to try again to ruffle Paul’s feathers. If he succeeds, that’s not good for the Suns. The other major factor in Game 4 was New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas doing whatever he wanted. Phoenix needs Deandre Ayton to ensure that doesn’t keep happening.
– INJURY WATCH: Booker (hamstring) remains out for the Suns.
– PRESSURE IS ON: Phoenix. Entirely, completely, on Phoenix. The Suns are 2-6 in their last eight playoff games going back to last season’s NBA Finals. And New Orleans believes it can pull this upset off.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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