There has been a different vibe at the Smoothie King Center as of late, in case you’ve missed it.
The days of a crowd simply hoping for a good game, a competitive effort, or signs of progress before going home after a disappointing loss have come to an abrupt end.
Sunday afternoon the atmosphere at “The Blender” was more akin to the Colosseum of Rome as rabid Pelicans fans reveled in the passion and helped fuel the fire as their team won its seventh consecutive game and strengthened its position as the current top seed in the Western Conference.
The victory coming as the bookend of a weekend sweep of the hated Phoenix Suns made the taste all the more sweet to the sellout crowd.
Pelicans fans now enter the Smoothie King Center expecting to see wins, and so far the team has delivered.
New Orleans currently sits tied for fifth in home winning percentage (.800) after improving to 12-3 on Sunday.
Last season, the Pelicans didn’t win their 12th home game until Feb. 8 and only won 19 at the Smoothie King Center all season, their fourth straight with a losing record at home.
However, things have been much different this year. No team in the NBA has been better at home over the past month. Since Nov. 11, the Pelicans are 10-1 (.909) in “The Blender.” Their only loss came at the hands of the Boston Celtics, who currently have the best overall and the best road records in the entire league.
The Pelicans haven’t skated by facing also-rans either. They’ve beaten Memphis, Golden State, Toronto, Denver, and Phoenix (twice). Their opponents over those 11 games have a combined record of 134-133, with six of those teams currently holding winning records.
There’s something unique brewing in the Crescent City, and it isn’t from the runoff on Bourbon Street.
We’ve seen it before in the NBA. Where during one spectacular season a city and team connect in a way that it never had before.
The “We Believe” Warriors.
The “Anything is Possible” Celtics.
The “Grind City” Grizzlies.
The “We the North” Raptors.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been “Rip City” for more than 50 years, creating an unbreakable bond that has become as much a part of their identity as their iconic logo.
There have been moments before when it seemed as if the team and the fanbase were ready to fully embrace each other, but the mix was never quite right and the vibes never lasted for long.
It’s different now.
No matter how little attention the general population of sports fans may pay to what’s happening in New Orleans, it’s real and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Give credit to the front office of the Pelicans for figuring out sooner rather than later that Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram needed to be surrounded by professional basketball players.
It’s no coincidence that the bond between the city and the team strengthened as the team added more mature young players like Herbert Jones, Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall, and now Dyson Daniels and team-oriented veterans CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, and Larry Nance Jr.
Willie Green’s past with the city as a player had already endeared him to fans, but the product that he and his staff have put on the floor this season as well as his incredible passion and capacity for communication have cemented his status among the faithful.
And then of course, there is Zion.
Zion Williamson is playing the best basketball of his career and the Pelicans are finally reaping the benefits in the standings.
Williamson has appeared in eight of the 11 home games during this stretch, averaging 26.9 pts, 6.9 reb, 4.9 ast, 1.3 stl, 0.9 blk, with an average plus-minus of +18.1 while shooting 67.5 pct from the floor and 50 pct from beyond the arc.
But since the calendar turned to December, Zion has taken it up another level.
Over his last four home games he posted 31 points and nearly eight boards per game. He made more than two-thirds of his attempts from wherever he took them.
And suddenly, the young man who not so long ago felt disconnected from the game he loved, his team, and his adopted city has found himself back in the embrace of a fan base that never wanted to let him go in the first place.
Yes, something special is happening in New Orleans.
What it will become remains to be seen, but it is happening.
That much is undeniable.
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