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Pelicans need more from Brandon Ingram to upset Thunder. How can they get him going?

OKLAHOMA CITY — In a game that was as tense, physical and defensive-oriented as Game 1 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, every possession has to be handled with care.

The opening salvo of this first-round series was an exhausting rock fight, and both sides struggled to throw a pebble into the ocean for most of the night.

With the score tied at 90 and less than two minutes remaining, every opportunity to score was like a gift from the basketball gods. So when the Pelicans grabbed three offensive rebounds in a row during one trip down the floor, it was the basketball equivalent of found money.

Except they failed to cash in. Four shots, zero points.

Nineteen seconds later, after the Thunder got the ball back, MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drove into the lane and nailed a floater for a three-point play with 32.5 seconds left. The shot ultimately allowed the Thunder to escape with a 94-92 victory over the Pelicans on Sunday to take a 1-0 lead in the series.

“Those are the moments when you’ve got a chance to close the door on them, and we didn’t do that,” Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said.

Those four shots will haunt the Pelicans until they get back on the court for Wednesday’s Game 2. It may end up haunting them the entire offseason.

The most disturbing part of that four-shot sequence was that the worst look came from Brandon Ingram, who rushed into an ill-timed fadeaway 3-pointer with nine seconds left on the shot clock and 1:07 remaining in the game.

That one shot turned out to be a great encapsulation of his night. It was frantic. It was sloppy. It was reckless. It was all the things Ingram usually is not.

In the end, Ingram finished with 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting in a game New Orleans desperately needed him to control. Instead, a prime shot at stealing Game 1 from the West’s No. 1 seed slipped through his fingers.

Oklahoma City’s stars responded whenever things looked shaky on their end. Gilgeous-Alexander had 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting, including the go-ahead bucket in the final minute. Jalen Williams chipped in 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Those two combined to score 27 of the Thunder’s 51 points in the second half.

Meanwhile, Ingram was held to four points on seven shots in the second half.

With Zion Williamson sidelined for the foreseeable future due to a hamstring injury, the pressure on Ingram to produce as a No. 1 option will continue to rise. If Game 1 was any indication of how this series will go, points will be at a premium, which means New Orleans needs its best active scorer to play like it. There’s no other option.

Ingram is certainly capable. Two seasons ago, he averaged 27 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists as a frisky eighth-seeded Pelicans pushed the top-seeded Suns to six games without Williamson. Sunday’s game against Oklahoma City was the first time he’s scored less than 18 points in a playoff game, and his three assists were tied for his lowest tally.

“It just wasn’t consistent enough for me. I’ve gotta be more in control of the game,” Ingram said after the loss. “I’ve got to make good plays, no matter the physicality or not. I’ve got to be there for my teammates.”

The Thunder had many advantages going into this series. They were the No. 1 seed, and they were well-rested, as the Pelicans had to win a hard-fought Play-In game Friday over the Sacramento Kings. The energy in Paycom Center was off the charts as a sea of Thunder fans in white T-shirts let out deafening roars anytime their team made a good play.

However, the advantage that most significantly tilted Game 1 in the Thunder’s favor was their suffocating perimeter defense, particularly from Lu Dort. The fifth-year forward was already considered one of NBA’s elite stoppers, ranking third in The Athletic’s anonymous player poll for the league’s best defender. He only added to his case with the problems he gave Ingram the entire night.

Dort’s physicality at the point of attack makes him a particularly tough matchup for Ingram. Considering how playoff games are usually officiated, Dort’s bully-ball style on defense becomes even more effective without the benefit of the whistle.

Anytime Ingram tried to make a move, Dort was inside of the Pelicans star’s jersey. From the opening possession, Dort sent a message that he wouldn’t allow Ingram to get anything easily — not even a post touch.

From there, Dort pushed. He grabbed. He poked at the ball. He bumped Ingram on drives. He contested every jumper. He made Ingram work on every step.

“It was definitely more physical (than a regular-season game),” Ingram said. “I thought Lu Dort did a good job of keeping his hands on me. Being physical and keeping his body on me.”

After a while, Ingram grew mentally and physically fatigued with the hand fighting he had to do with Dort to make something happen. Ingram’s growth in the last two seasons has come from making quicker decisions and more direct moves. In Sunday’s fourth quarter, however, he started getting hesitant, seemingly worrying about whether the officials would make a call or allow Dort to keep pushing him around.

Sunday was only Ingram’s third game back after sitting out three and a half weeks with a left knee bone bruise, and his rhythm, feel and comfort level isn’t quite there yet. It may take another game or two before he completely feels like himself again.

But at this point in the season, the Pelicans don’t have another game or two. Ingram’s not looking for any sympathy. He just needs to play better and believes the way to do so is simple.

“Continue to be myself,” Ingram said. “Go back to the film. Communicate with the guys on what I can do better — how I can make the game a little easier for myself and for my teammates. And just be strong with the basketball. I’ve played Lu Dort and I’ve played OKC a lot of times and had a lot of success.”

This season, Ingram only played in one of the three regular-season matchups between these teams and was held to 12 points. Oklahoma City drilled the Pelicans by 24 points in a game Williamson also sat out.

But Ingram did have 34 points against Dort and the Thunder in a February 2023 game the Pelicans won by three points. That time, the Pelicans often kept Ingram on the move, forcing Dort and others to chase him around screens. In contrast, Sunday’s game featured much more of Ingram dribbling the ball at the top of the key, trying to free himself in pick-and-roll actions. This is where Dort thrives with his wide body and his ability to dodge screens.

Going into Game 2, the Pelicans could take a page from that 2023 game and get Ingram on the move more often. They could use Ingram as a screener to put Dort in more compromising positions. It may also help to get Ingram more touches at the free-throw line rather than above the 3-point line, which would will allow him to get to his moves more quickly and help him see kickout passes to the corners.

Another solution could be to initiate more Ingram pick-and-rolls on the sides rather than at the top of the key. Clearing out one side and allowing Ingram to play a two-man game may make it harder for OKC to crowd him.

“He’s got to continue to play through it,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said of Ingram. “Have some gamesmanship out there, get to the free-throw line more. This is what it’s going to be. We’re physical with them, they’re physical with us. That’s a part of the game. That’s a part of playoff basketball.”

For the next two days, Ingram will hear a lot of noise about how much of a problem Dort is and how difficult it’ll be for the Pelicans to find an answer to Oklahoma City’s physicality. The playoffs magnify every small issue, and two days off between games only provides more space for the chatter. Ingram needs to ignore all that talk and respond the way all the greats go.

When Ingram was asked about how he’ll react to Dort’s physicality in Game 2, his answer was brief.

“Let him do it,” Ingram said confidently. “I’ll be ready.”

(Top photo: Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

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