Watching from the hallway, “Happy with it, not satisfied with it”, was overheard as the New Orleans Pelicans marched away from the FedEx Forum with a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The divisional rivals were both missing key pieces but Zion Williamson finished off the hosts with 12-straight points to close out the Game 1 win. New Orleans head coach Willie Green admitted there were some frustrating moments but “it is easier to teach off of a win than a loss.”
The postgame locker room message ended with Coach’s understated, “81 more to go.” Everything wasn't going to come together all at once for a team trying to shed unflattering narratives from the last few seasons.
“The biggest discussion that we'll have is it’s going to be hard," Green said. "We should expect that night-in and night-out. The NBA is going to be hard, and teams aren't going to let us just come down and execute. We have to be the team that's more forceful, and we did that tonight.”
Memphis might have been missing Stephen Adams and Ja Morant, but New Orleans has dealt with those issues for years. No one shows mercy in the NBA and the Pelicans' Big Three did their job. C.J. McCollum poured in 24 points, Zion added 23, and Brandon Ingram’s 19 points made 66 points from the team’s stars. It took Williamson a while to get going, scoring only 7 first-half points on two made shots, but the highlight dunk at the end of the second quarter might’ve awakened a monster season.
“It helped,” Williamson admitted, “For me, I think it's going to be a few games, just getting that in-game flow back. No matter how much I train, workout, play pickup, it’s nothing like a real NBA game. [I] give Jaren [Jackson Jr.] his respect. I think it actually worked out for me, just playing against the Defensive Player of the Year in the first game and just kind of feeling out how he’s going to jump for shots, how certain teams will try to guard me. The second half was more so just kind of feeling the game.”
Ingram needed 18 shots to notch 19 points but McCollum was “elite,” according to Green. McCollum felt Williamson “settled in and got more comfortable as the game went on. Kind of felt out the defense and obviously how they were, how they were calling the game, and you got to get more aggressive. We did a better job of getting the ball in spots where he’d be successful, and he finished plays and did what he does.”
“A couple of times we got ahead of ourselves to turn the ball over and things of that nature," added McCollum. "I just have to make sure I keep us settled, but I can score the ball. I can get to certain spots, and I'll continue to develop and get better as we play together more. I think that'll be helpful for all of us, the spacing, play calling, when to make the pass and when to cut. All of those things we'll continue to get better at, but I like the steps that we made from Sept. 28 to now."
There are still a lot of wrinkles to work out with this roster. Overlooked addition turned Twitter-trending star enjoying his first postgame podium Matt Ryan shared, “There really hasn't been much time to get acclimated with everybody off the court. I flew in Monday morning to New Orleans and tonight is Wednesday, so I've been with the team for... this is like the third day I've been with the team. They kind of knew who I was. Everybody at this point knows what I'm looking to do out there, and again I just got to thank the front office and coaches for giving me this chance.”
I asked Coach Green if there was anything they could take away from Opening Night that had long-term value. He replied, “The biggest clarity that we have is that we want to be a mentally tough team. We did that tonight. Coming on their floor and carving out a win with different lineups. Throwing zones at them, switching one through five... all the things that we've been working on in practice. It was great to see us come to somebody's home floor and have toughness, execution and communication and to do it with joy.”
There are always frustrations during the NBA's first 10-game feeling-out process. Next up is Josh Hart’s return with the New York Knicks. A 2-0 start while showing the same resiliency would go a long way in the effort to win back skeptical fans.
“Look at the teams that win the championship; they’re consistent with the small things on a day-to-day basis," Williamson said, echoing Green. "So, if we can get to a championship level, with the small things, I think we got a good chance.”