Ever since Zion Williamson went down on January 2nd with a hamstring strain, the New Orleans Pelicans have struggled heavily on the offensive side of the floor. Before yesterday, the team had been 26th in Offensive Rating since Williamson got hurt.
The Pelicans – who had miraculously managed to accumulate a 16-point advantage heading into the half – were now facing the prospect of playing the entire second portion of the game without their two offensive best players. A game that may very well have been their most important of the season thus far.
Despite Luka Doncic also leaving the game prematurely, Kyrie Irving and the Mavericks valiantly battled their way back into the contest. And after an Irving semi-transition layup trimmed the lead down to three points with four minutes remaining in the game, a Pelican collapse appeared to be a mere formality.
That is, until CJ McCollum – the Pelicans’ third-best offensive player – decided he had something to say about it.
McCollum’s final frame had gotten off to a rocky start, as he had come up empty-handed on three of his first four field goal attempts of the quarter. But when New Orleans needed him the most, the veteran guard reminded us that he’s still one of the most gifted scorers in the league.
Immediately following Irving’s layup, McCollum retaliated against the newly-acquired All-Star by pretending to curl inward like he was going to receive a dribble handoff, only to slam the brakes, catch the pass, and attack from the other direction.
After an Irving miss at the other end, McCollum received the ball on the wing and decided it was time to school the rookie Jaden Hardy in the art of the stepback three-pointer. And just like that, the three-point deficit was now back up to eight. Timeout Dallas.
Following the timeout, McCollum decided he wanted to attack the slow-footed Davis Bertans in pick and roll. Bertans realized this and countered by trying to show on the screen and recover back to his man.
The problem for Bertans was that McCollum drove downhill so fiercely that he didn’t have time to recover, and the show turned into a late switch. And then that late switch turned into a sidestep triple for the President of the National Basketball Player’s Association.
With two minutes remaining, the desperate Mavericks decided to trap the two-man action involving Irving and Bertans to compel the ball out of McCollum’s hands. Force someone that is not McCollum to beat them. That was Dallas’ plan.
The idea sounded good in theory, but unfortunately for them, McCollum channeled his inner Stephen Curry – immediately relocating for another three after he initially gave the ball up.
Even after all this, Dallas refused to give up. They were still down only five points with less than a minute remaining in regulation. It was a long shot, but if Dallas managed a stop here, things would get interesting.
With this in mind, Hardy decided it was time to face guard McCollum. So, he did just that when the red-hot two-guard crossed the halfcourt line. But he let his guard down for just a second, and in that time, McCollum made a mad dash toward the interior. At that moment, Trey Murphy III, the Pelican with the ball, found McCollum for what would ultimately be the final dagger.
In total, McCollum scored 16 straight points for New Orleans in the fourth quarter. Over the course of the entire game, he managed a points/rebounds/assists stat line of 32/5/5 on 12/22 shooting from the floor and 6/8 shooting from downtown.
His clutch-time outburst couldn’t have come at a better time, as the win brought New Orleans a game and a half back from the Mavericks in the standings and two games back from the fifth seed in the conference (currently occupied by the Golden State Warriors).
Before tonight’s eruption, McCollum had been struggling since returning from the All-Star Break, averaging 19.5 PPG on 42.1% shooting from the floor and 26.2% shooting from the three-point line in the six games he’s been back.
With Williamson, and maybe Ingram, out for the foreseeable future, the Pelicans are going to need to see this version of McCollum more frequently down the stretch, especially if they hope to secure their second straight playoff berth.