Game 7 vibes: Clippers to host Pelicans in Friday’s NBA play-in elimination

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum reacts with the crowd after scoring a three-point basket.
New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum celebrates with the crowd after scoring a three-point basket in the first half of a play-in game against the San Antonio Spurs in New Orleans on Wednesday.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Before they can even reach a seven-game series, the Clippers have to first survive a Game 7.

For the statistical record, Friday’s matchup at Arena against New Orleans will be the second game of the NBA’s play-in tournament for both the Clippers and Pelicans. But as an elimination game, where the winner earns a first-round series against top-seeded Phoenix and the loser’s season ends, “it is a Game 7” in feel and function, guard Terance Mann said.

“It is called win or go home,” wing Nicolas Batum said.

Basketball on the brink brought out the best in the Clippers one year ago when, after falling behind 2-0 to Dallas in the first round, they won a de facto elimination game in Game 3, on the road, and two straight win-or-else victories in Games 6 and 7. Falling behind Utah in the second round 2-0, the Clippers answered with another Game 3 win to spark a series comeback.


Trae Young scored 24 points as the Atlanta Hawks beat the Charlotte Hornets 132-103. In the other game, the New Orleans Pelicans beat the San Antonio Spurs 113-103.

Unlike a playoff series, however, the Clippers don’t have multiple previous games to study and prepare adjustments and counters. Their best piece of prep material is watching their 19-point win against New Orleans on April 3, and the Pelicans’ victory Wednesday against San Antonio to stay alive in the play-in tournament, in which CJ McCollum scored 32 points and Brandon Ingram added 25.

The Clippers wouldn’t be here except for their failure to protect a 10-point lead with eight minutes to play in Tuesday’s fourth quarter in Minnesota. Coach Tyronn Lue didn’t even watch the film, saying he had to move on to studying New Orleans and San Antonio.

This much was clear without the aid of film: When Minnesota’s defense increased its physicality — particularly after Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out, leading to smaller lineups around Naz Reid that could afford to be more aggressive without worry about Towns’ fouls — it sped up the Clippers and hurt their offense, Lue said.

“We didn’t do a good job of executing down the stretch, not trusting a little bit, and so that kind of hurt us,” Lue said. “But it was one game. But as the leader and as the head coach, I can’t be down in the dumps about it.”

In recent weeks within the Clippers organization some felt drawing second-seeded Memphis — with its relative lack of playoff experience — would have been the better first-round matchup even though the physical Grizzlies mauled the Clippers all season inside the paint. Many others felt Phoenix, despite boasting an NBA-best and franchise-record 64 regular-season wins, would better suit the Clippers’ personnel.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George plays during an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves
Clippers guard Paul George controls the ball during a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday.
(Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press)

A loss Friday would mark an unsatisfying end to all the work that went into an overachieving season in which they secured an NBA-best 11th-consecutive winning season despite receiving 31 games from Paul George and zero from Kawhi Leonard.

“Our minds are in the right place,” Lue said. “And we’re ready to go.”

New Orleans, coached by former Clippers guard Willie Green, began 3-16 before improving steadily to finish with the West’s ninth-best record even though injured star Zion Williamson didn’t play a single game.

“I mean, that’s incredible,” Lue said.

The Pelicans won the season series 3-1, with the lone loss in the most recent game. The fourth matchup was most significant because it was the only time these teams played after their rosters changed considerably following February’s trade deadline.

For the Clippers, that means containing McCollum, acquired in a trade with Portland. McCollum made seven of his 18 shots in the early April loss and got to the free-throw line four times. Though he scored 19 points, the Pelicans were outscored by 21 points in his 37 minutes thanks to Clippers reserves, whose defense in the second quarter broke the game open. Brandon Ingram shot three for 11 while big man Jonas Valanciunas — after making 12 of his 17 three-pointers during two games in November — didn’t get off a single three-pointer.

McCollum played more often off the ball in Portland, but he’s taken on a lead guard role with New Orleans, his usage rating rising from 26% to 29%, and his assist percentage increasing from 22% to 31% after the deal.

With the Clippers focusing their energies on Tuesday’s play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the bench led the way to a 138-88 win over the Thunder.

“He’s one of the few guys in this league who can score like, he’s got the whole package: in the paint, obviously one of the best midrange shooters in the game, threes, pick-and-roll, everything,” said Batum, a former teammate of McCollum in Portland.

“You can’t control a guy by yourself, a guy like that. Those two guys, Ingram and CJ. So it’s going to be a team effort tomorrow because we saw what happened last game. We struggled a little bit, too, between [D’Angelo Russell] and [Anthony] Edwards. So we have to correct that.”

Norman Powell, another former Trail Blazer offloaded, along with Robert Covington, at the trade deadline, was yet to return from a fracture in a foot bone during the April 3 Clippers victory. That might not throw a wrench into New Orleans’ preparation, however, because Powell played New Orleans in November with Portland, and the Trail Blazers and Clippers overlap significantly in what they run, and how, because of relationships between the coaching staffs.

Lue said he texted Green after his team’s victory Wednesday to extend his congratulations.

“He said, ‘Thank you so much and it’s gonna be fun,’” Lue said. “I said, ‘I hope not.’”