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Antonio Daniels: Pelicans have been disrespected by national media

Antonio Daniels: Pelicans have been disrespected by national media

It appears as though the New Orleans Pelicans are playing harder and more aggressively, and with a greater sense of urgency and more passion, than the Phoenix Suns are at this point of their playoff series.

Herb Jones is putting on a Superman cape to leap tall buildings in a single bound and block three-point attempts. The scrappy Jose Alvarado forced Chris Paul into an eight-second violation in the backcourt, something that very rarely happens to the veteran point guard. The bench is fired up for the entire game, and the team is playing with a passion that hasn’t been seen in New Orleans for quite some time.

Nobody outside of that city could’ve imagined that this series would be tied at two games apiece with the highly-favored, 62-win, defending-Western-Conference-champion Suns. 

Having said that, there seems to be a feeling of disrespect from the national media for a team that has exceeded the expectations of so many in the sports world. 

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I spoke with Pelicans color analyst Antonio Daniels about his assessment of the team and that national media disrespect toward New Orleans.

Etan Thomas: First, how great is it to see the Pelicans prove a lot of people wrong who didn't even give them a chance?

Antonio Daniels: "Oh, man. Well, for me, it's not even about it being great, proving people wrong. The great part is what I've seen this team accomplish. People are going to doubt no matter what. I don't care who you are, or what you've ever done, how good you are. People are always going to doubt. But you can't allow people's doubts to actually affect the way that you think about yourself. I have said this about this team from Day 1, and I actually have it bookmarked in my Twitter feed; Nov. 5, I said at this time, 'This team gets healthy, they're a playoff team. If they get healthy, they're a playoff team.' And I remember I was doing the pregame show and David Wesley, who's a good friend of mine, turned and faced my way and was almost like to say, 'Whatever.' You know what I mean?

Etan: Right.

Daniels: "Here's the thing, Etan. When you're talking about success in this league, it's not going to [happen] if you don't have a culture of overachievement. It doesn't happen. You have to have guys that overachieve, guys that are outplaying the expectation. You can go all the way back to the Golden State Warriors. What they did with Steph Curry and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson and those guys. They all overachieved. Did you think when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were coming out that they would be the best shooting backcourt in history? Or when Draymond Green was coming out, at this point in his career, he would be a Hall-of-Famer? No. But they created a culture of overachievement.

"What you have here in New Orleans is, a lot was going on early on in the season, new pieces trying to fit in along with head coach Willie Green. And that's a lot to take on early; 1-12, 3-16 is what this team started. And now, at that time, the talk was, 'Let's tank. There's no Zion.' Fans all said they should just tank the season. Even when you acquired CJ McCollum. I remember Stephen A. Smith saying, 'Oh, I don't know what they're doing. Why would CJ McCollum want to go there? New Orlenas ain't going anywhere anyway.'

"The disrespect from the national media is, I think, what guys really pay attention to. And I think they do somewhat use that as motivation. But to be a part of this journey, Etan, from Day 1 of training camp, to Zion being hurt [and] not being available throughout the course of this team's season, being without your best player and seeing what this team has been able to accomplish, climbing out of that 3-16 start, it's been special."

Etan: Talk about the addition you mentioned of CJ McCollum and how much that has helped the entire team.

Daniels: "I'll say this first: What people forget about in that addition is that Larry Nance was in that [trade] as well, and people aren't talking about that. People are talking about CJ, and CJ's been fantastic. But I'll tell you what, I don't think that the Pelicans are at this point without Larry Nance Jr. He was the difference in the Play-In game against the Clippers because what he offers you is versatility at the 5 spot that you didn't have prior to him. Versatility and experience. When teams go small, like you see a lot of the NBA doing now, and they're basically playing five forwards like the Toronto Raptors, it’s problematic for opposing teams. You need a big that is experienced, knowledged, but understands strengths and weaknesses [and] also has the skill set to compete. Larry Nance Jr was great. And people don't talk about him enough."

Etan: Great point.

Daniels: "But to get to CJ — CJ's playing the best basketball of his career. And from his words, he's a servant leader. And I love it because he's not very vocal, but he leads by example. He came in and he said, 'You know what, man? I want Brandon Ingram to be the best version of himself' on Day 1. Because if B.I.'s the best version of himself, that will allow me (meaning CJ McCollum) to be the best version of myself. And I remember asking CJ, when I sat down and I interviewed him, talking about, 'How do you develop chemistry between you and B.I.?' And he said, 'You know what? I'll do the same thing with him that me and Dame [Lillard] did. We sat down and we watched films together. I want to know where he wants to ball. I want him to be vocal with me. I want to know where his hotspot is, what plays he likes, when he needs me to back down and allow him to be the best version of himself.' The communication between those two from Day 1 was at an all-time level.

"But, Etan, what really helped this team was the All-Star break. Because if you look at what this team has done post-All-Star break, that was the chemistry between CJ and B.I. really starting to take off. We opened up in Phoenix. First game at the All-Star break, we opened up in Phoenix. And they talked at length about the dinner that they had in Phoenix the night before, where they just got an opportunity to connect to one another and to communicate with one another. This team has been rolling ever since when those two are on the floor together with a healthy starting five."

Etan: I want you to talk a little bit about Coach Willie Green. I actually posted and tweeted the clip of him motivating the guys. It made me feel like I want to go out there and lace them back up and get ready to go play. Talk about how great he has been for this team.

Daniels: "Listen, Etan, I can't put it into words the respect that I have for Willie Green from Day 1. You know it's funny. Because when you're losing, people don't want to hear about it. People don't want to hear about the positives when you're losing. They only want to hear about the positives when you start playing well. And when this team was 1-12, and then, when they were 3-16... I'll tell you, Etan, we've both played on bad teams; you know what a shootaround is like walking into the gym when you're 3-16. This was not it. I have never seen more spirited shootarounds from, at the time, what seemed to be a bad basketball team. And that started with Willie Green. He never blinked. He never allowed this team to lose confidence. His faith in this team never wavered, and he stands on his faith as a whole.

"I'll give you a quick example. You know how many coaches have the open-door policy where you can come in and talk? I meet with Willie Green from time-to-time. We'll go into his office. We'll talk or sit or chat or go out to dinner. Etan, our meetings ended with prayer. How many coaches have you ever gone in to meet with and talk about the team or whatever it may be and, when it's all said and done, you guys are at his desk praying together? That speaks to the man that Willie Green is. He is one of those guys that is so inspiring because he makes you want to be a better version of yourself. I don't hoop no more, Etan. If that's how he makes me feel, I can imagine how he makes players feel. When you have guys like Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy and Herb Jones, Jaxson Hayes — all these guys, when their number was called, they were ready to go. Because when they weren't playing, Willie Green was still speaking grace, life and confidence into them. And I had an opportunity to see it up close and personal. I am at every practice, at every shootaround. I've traveled with the team. I eat with the team. To see his communication with them, his ability to relate to them [is incredible].

"And I'm a proud believer, Etan, that the best coaches in this league are role players. You know why? Because they can relate to everybody from 1-to-15. If you're a star player, you can't relate to the guy who hasn't played in six games or the guy who's major inconsistent. Willie Green has started in this league, he's been a sixth man, he's been in situations where his minutes weren't guaranteed and he's also been in a situation where he hadn't played at all. Tell me who on that bench he cannot relate to! And there's nothing more important in today's NBA than a coach's ability to relate to his players. I don't care about your defensive schemes, I don't care about your X's and O's. If the players feel like you can't relate to them, they will not play as hard for you. But the moment that they feel like you care about them as men, as fathers, as husbands — they will run through a wall for you. And I'm telling you, Willie Green has that locker room so engaged, because of the way that he handles himself throughout adversity."

Etan: Wow. That's great to hear, and I thought that about him already, just from knowing who he is. But it's great to hear you say that. Let me ask you one more thing. I know you don't worry about the haters and the noise and social media, all that stuff, but they keep bringing up the fact that because Devin Booker isn't there, that's the reason why the Pelicans are in this series. I was like, 'Well, wait a minute. Y'all forget that Zion isn't there either?' I'm like, y'all forgot about that part.

Daniels: "Here's the thing. Has there ever been an NBA champion where there's not a 'What if?' attached to it? Let's just go back to a year ago. Remember when Trae Young got hurt against Milwaukee? Remember when Kyrie Irving got hurt against Milwaukee? Remember James Harden had to come back as a shadow of himself with half of a hamstring versus Milwaukee? Remember a couple years back when Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson got hurt, and then Toronto won the championship? Look, ain't nobody tripping on that. This is the league full of injuries. You get certain things that are out of your control. So If people say, 'Oh man, the only reason that the Pelicans won is because (fill in the blank), well, okay.' But you are not going to find an NBA champion, a NFL champion where breaks don’t go somebody's way.

"But I'll tell you this, there are two teams in the NBA who have yet to play with their best player. I'm talking about not even one practice. Not even one practice this year with their best player. It's the L.A. Clippers and the New Orleans Pelicans. Kawhi [Leonard] literally practiced one time. But let me tell you the difference. The difference is, Kawhi Leonard has practiced with Tyronn Lue before. He's practiced with him before, last year. Zion does not have one practice with Coach Willie Green. Not one. The last that Zion has been on the floor is when he was averaging 26 points per game and shooting 61% from the field under Coach Stan Van Gundy.

"So people can sit here and say, 'Oh, well, the only reason is, because...' So what? So what? Your job is to go out and your job is to play. Plain and simple. Look at the playoffs now. Khris Middleton is sidelined. Luka [Doncic] was sidelined. Kyle Lowry is sidelined. You get guys that are injured all the time. What are the Pelicans supposed to say? 'Ah, you know what man? Devin Booker's not there. Let's wait. Let's wait until they have help and then come back to finish this series.' No. Your job is to take advantage of the situation that's given."

Etan: That’s absolutely correct.

Daniels: "And I'll tell you this, Etan, it goes along with the national narrative of the lack of respect that's given to the Pelicans. It goes right along with it. It doesn't matter. You know this better than anybody. It doesn't matter what people think about you. 'You ain't never believed in me as long as I believe in myself.' And this is a team, right now, that believes in themselves."

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