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How the Pelicans perched on the precipice of the biggest upset in NBA playoff history

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The second of countless timelines for Zion Williamson's return passed without word of another on the eve of Thanksgiving, when his New Orleans Pelicans' 3-16 record reflected an organization in apparent turmoil.

One of the NBA's smallest markets, the league's loneliest beat, became the focus of a familiar discussion nationally. The only time we talk about the Pelicans is to wonder when their superstar du jour will request a trade, and the clock for Williamson began the moment New Orleans landed No. 1 on the draft board in 2019. Reported disconnect between the injured 21-year-old All-Star and the front office fueled calls for Pelicans executive David Griffin's job two years after team ownership tabbed him to manage their latest rebuild.

Teams can combust under so focused a magnifying glass, but the Pelicans went to work with the heat at their backs. They have emerged from that fire tied two games apiece with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in their first-round playoff series, two wins from the biggest upset in NBA history — still without Williamson.

The arrival of CJ McCollum and emergence of Brandon Ingram have the Pelicans eyeing the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The arrival of CJ McCollum and emergence of Brandon Ingram have the Pelicans eyeing the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

As Thanksgiving approached, first-year coach Willie Green's Pelicans were floundering at the bottom of the Western Conference when he made two in a series of adjustments that turned the tide, however slowly — with or without Williamson. He urged Brandon Ingram to play faster and named Herb Jones a starter.

The alterations respectively embodied the core tenets of Green's coaching philosophy — ball movement on one end of the floor and defensive competitiveness on the other. The Pelicans responded with one of their fastest and best defensive games of the season on Nov. 24, dominating the Washington Wizards, 127-102.

"Point-five basketball," as Green dubs it, calls for the Pelicans to "shoot the ball, pass the ball or drive it" within half a second of receiving a pass. This requires trust among teammates that flows into their defense. Green saw it transform the Phoenix Suns from a pretender into a contender in two years as an assistant.

The Pelicans completed 318 passes against the Wizards, surpassing the 300-pass hallmark upon which the Golden State Warriors' dynasty was built. Two nights later, New Orleans completed 346, and the basketball gods answered Devonte' Graham's 61-foot prayer, the league's longest buzzer-beater in a quarter century.

The Pelicans leveraged the first win streak of Green's career into a 9-5 record from Thanksgiving until Christmas, their incremental improvement overshadowed by near-constant coverage of Williamson. He was cleared to practice in full on Nov. 26, suffered a setback on Dec. 2 and required an injection to expedite the slow-healing broken bone in his right foot on Dec. 16, delaying his return for at least another 4-6 weeks.

As Jones established himself as one of the NBA's top defenders, regardless of his status as a rookie second-round pick, Green further leaned into youthful energy on defense as the calendar turned to 2022. He rewarded undrafted rookie point guard Jose Alvarado's peskiness and third-year big man Jaxson Hayes' willingness to embrace a series of G League assignments with increased minutes in January.

Hayes earned his first start alongside veteran center Jonas Valanciunas against the Cleveland Cavaliers' massive front line on Jan. 31, and he responded with 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting in a narrow loss to a team that ranked among the Eastern Conference elite at the time. By mid-February, Green went all in on them as a double-big starting lineup, trusting their potential more than the suspect analytics behind them.

With the trade deadline approaching, Green's Pelicans had rebuffed the narrative that they should be sellers, submitting a 19-16 record sans Williamson since those two adjustments back in November. Griffin instead invested in them, targeting Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum as a playmaker who could seamlessly fit into Green's deferential offensive system and bring veteran leadership to a roster in need.

Reports of the Williamson family's frustration with the front office welcomed media speculation about his rehabilitation under Nike's watch in Portland, but Green was busy building a culture back in New Orleans. Never was that more evident than when Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker sat courtside for the Pelicans' first game after they were traded for McCollum, following their emotional goodbye from Green.

"I've never seen anything like that before," Green told reporters at the time. "To have guys show up to a game after they've been traded to support their brothers, that's what we're building. Just that connectivity."

Likewise, McCollum was eager to join these Pelicans, despite their record, because of the input he had received from players with ties to Green and New Orleans, even preferring them to other destinations.

On the eve of a Feb. 25 road game against the first-place Suns, Green, McCollum and Ingram sat together over a meal that accelerated the learning curve between his two primary offensive weapons. They proceeded to combine for 60 points on 35 shots and 11 assists in a 15-point win that drew the Pelicans within a game of the final play-in tournament berth — just three months after the rest of us wrote them off.

"We all challenged each other at dinner to be better and to hold each other accountable," Green said then.

The starting lineup of McCollum, Jones, Ingram, Hayes and Valanciunas finished the regular season +8.2 points per 100 possessions, scoring at a rate more than six points better than the league's best offense. As a whole, the Pelicans were one of six teams that completed 300 or more passes per game this season, and their net rating since the trade ranked fifth in the West — good enough to win consecutive games in the play-in tournament, capture an eighth seed and run with the top-seeded Suns in Devin Booker's absence.

Ingram's bona fide star turn (30-7-5 on 51/50/88 shooting splits in his debut playoff series), the seamless integration of McCollum, and the development of the three rookies in New Orleans' nine-man rotation might come as a surprise, if all you paid attention to was the team's reported rift with its latest franchise player.

It was McCollum's openness about Williamson's failure to communicate and the efforts to repair the divide between them that helped smooth the recent No. 1 pick's reentry into New Orleans, if only as a spectator. Now, with his Pelicans tied 2-2 in their first-round series with the one-time championship favorites, the national narrative around them has flipped from "Will Williamson leave?" to "What if he comes back?"

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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