Ingram, McCollum display greater harmony, pelicans trample suns, 117-102

It looks like big things could be in store during this season.

In their first game out of the All-Star break, the New Orleans Pelicans started strong but finished even better by beating the winningest team in the NBA by an impressive 117-102 margin.

Going into this game, the Phoenix Suns had the third-largest defense in the league, giving up an average of 105.5 points per game. The Pelicans scored 31 points in the first quarter, then picked up a halftime hauler, totaling 42 points in the third frame.

The 15-point loss was the second most lopsided home loss of the season for the Suns and their first inside the Footprint Center since Jan. 8.

Sitting in the heart of New Orleans’ dominant win, Brandon Ingram (28 points, five rebounds, seven assists) and CJ McCollum (32 points, six rebounds, four assists) have finally discovered that elusive comfort zone.

In their first five games together, McCollum showed little trouble acclimating to his new team, but Ingram’s numbers were remarkably low. Admittedly, Brandon appeared to be running on tired legs before the break; however, it was obvious that a good synergy between the two actors did not yet exist either.

There was no evidence of this problem tonight.

“I think we’re just starting to get the hang of it,” Willie Green said after the game. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us but these two guys were spectacular, they played against each other and the ball was moving a bit more. They can still do pick-and-rolls, isolations , whatever they do, but I like that they play each other more tonight. Big win.

Along with several helpful practices over the past two days and the opportunity for McCollum to study more movies since a loss to the Mavericks on Feb. 17, don’t underestimate the importance of the star duo dining with Willie Green Thursday night.

“We had a nice dinner last night,” McCollum told Bally Sports’ Jen Hale. “We have good wine in us and have talked about the rest of the season about what we want to achieve. I think when you break bread with people, I think it continues on the pitch.

We’re only six games into this new era, but with the way CJ and BI are already interacting off the pitch, you’d think they’d been together much longer. Yeah, don’t let anyone tell you that negotiating for McCollum wasn’t a good decision. We’ve seen evidence of CJ’s leadership and individual ability from day one, but now his talents are woven into the fabric of the Pelicans.

New Orleans had a season-best 41 free throws. They won the fastbreak, points in the paint and turnover battles. They held Phoenix to one of their worst offensive performances of the season, both in runs scored and field goal percentage.

Sitting Chris Paul certainly hurt the chances of victory, but the Suns were previously undefeated (5-0) in the regular season and playoffs without their starting point guard.

Jonas Valanciunas (18 points, 17 rebounds) has been extremely solid, especially in pick-and-roll action with McCollum; however, his heartfelt message to the Ukrainian people after the game was clearly the highlight.

“First of all, I want to say that my heart and my prayers go out to the people of Ukraine. Innocents who suffer, die and lose loved ones, men who defend their country. War is not a solution. The war must end.

Valanciunas’ starting teammate Jaxson Hayes played less than five minutes in the first half due to a foul, but made his impact felt in the third quarter. All of his points (nine) and rebounds (six) came in frame, adding a good block, a fun assist and a three-pointer down the middle too.

Although Herb Jones (0-9) and Naji Marshall (2-6) struggled to get the ball through the rim, their defense played a big part in the victory.

The forwards combined seven interceptions and they did about the best job you can expect against Devin Booker. The interim Suns point guard finished with 30 points, but it took him 24 shots to reach that total. He also committed four turnovers.

Tony Snell knocked down three of the Pelicans’ eight 3-pointers, finishing with nine points and seven rebounds. Devonte’ Graham added 11 points. While Jose Alvarado failed to find the scoring column, his +15 plus-minus in 11 minutes passed the sight test.

For the first time this season, Garrett Temple received a decision from the DNP coach.

With 22 games left, the Pelicans are tied with the Spurs for 11th in the Western Conference standings, trailing the Trail Blazers by just one game.

Next, the Pelicans travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers on Sunday. LeBron’s team took down the Clippers on Friday night, cementing their hold on ninth place for the time being. If New Orleans manages to pull off a win, they will move within 2.5 games of the Lakers.

Things are likely to get spicy very quickly in this second half of the season.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast stream on itunes, Spotify, embroiderer Where google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.

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