Nobody outside of New Orleans saw this coming. The eighth-seeded Pelicans, who had to win two play-in games just to get into the playoffs are tied 2-2 in their best-of-seven series with the best team in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns, 2-2.
Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are getting their share of the credit, and rightfully so. But let’s not overlook the job of first-year head coach Willie Green, and Pelicans rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado.
The Pelicans were 10-21 through 31 games to start the season. Green led them to a 26-25 record the rest of the way. Green has pushed all the right buttons this season and through the first four games of the playoffs. Including playing rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado big minutes.
It’s proved to be the right thing, as Alvarado and Jones terrorized Chris Paul down the stretch in Game 4. Both rookies ranked in the 92nd percentile this season in defensive EPM. It’s rare for a rookie to be good on defense, much less two on the floor together.
Jose Alvarado finally got Chris Paul slippin' 🍪 pic.twitter.com/zJBV9mEGis
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 25, 2022
“He’s a good kid who plays hard,” Paul said of Alvarado. “He’s a really good energy guy. I’ll be better next game; I’ve got to be.”
This was surprising as Paul, nicknamed the “Point God,” is the most cerebral player in the league. He has mastered every trick in the book and is never rattled like this by young guards.
“It’s CP. He’s one of the best guards out there. It’s all love, no disrespect. But I’m gonna be there. I’m not running away from no smoke. It’s all about that. I’m gonna stand on my own,” Alvarado said. “I’m gonna pick up full court, try to steal the ball from him, make the game a little difficult for him. That’s all it is. We’ll watch film, try to get better, and I’ll try to do the same thing in Phoenix.”
Green and Suns head coach Monty Williams have been friends for over 20 years, a connection that is impacting this series. They have been teammates in Philadelphia, Green played under Williams at New Orleans, and then served as an assistant under Williams in Phoenix, the latter of which for the past few seasons as the Suns began their ascension.
“Monty and I are not just friends,” Green told The Athletic. “We are like … that’s like my older brother. I look up to Monty. We are cut from the same cloth, man. Number one, we are both God-fearing men. That’s number one. We are family men. We love hoops. And we are competitive. But we hold each other accountable. We are honest, direct and we learn from each other.”
No doubt their years of late-night conversations about basketball and life have given both men insight into how the other thinks. Who can get into the mindset of the other quicker and anticipate counters first might decide this series.
Regardless, the NBA has two elite Black coaches showing out on the playoff stage. There are a number of Black assistants throughout the league deserving of an opportunity, and as Green continues to excel it shows what can be done with an opportunity.
To be fair, losing Devin Booker is making this series more difficult for the Suns.
But that’s the playoffs. Injuries happen, and momentum changes on a dime. This series is now a best-of-three, and the Pelicans believe they can win.