by Christopher Dodson, Guest Columnist (Sports Illustrated)

The New Orleans Pelicans have earned a spot in the NBA Playoffs and will host at least two more parties in the Smoothie King Center (aka. The Blender). Digging deep into the stat sheets and seeing how the team interacts beyond the game, it is clear this resurgence back into the playoff conversation comes down to one stat.

It’s a stat beyond basic percentages, on/off-net ratings per 100 possessions, R.A.P.T.O.R. ratings, L.E.B.R.O.N. data, and any other analytically creative metric.

It has been clear for months now. New Orleans is second to none in H.E.A.R.T. This team is Humble, Energetic, Appreciative, Resilient, and, most of all, Trusting.

First year New Orleans Pelicans Head Coach Willie Green and the players have used those exact words in recent press conferences.

Green said the most recent win over the Lakers, “It’s been a long journey to get to this point, starting the season off the way we did. It’s a credit to the guys in the locker room and the people in our organization. More importantly, it’s a credit to God. Just keeping Him first in everything that we do. Giving Him praise and glory and just staying with it. Trusting. Believing. The season’s not over, we still have a long way to go, but we’re just building confidence and momentum at the right time.”

New Orleans Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) slam dunks over Los Angeles Lakers forward Wenyen Gabriel (35) and center Dwight Howard in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, March 27, 2022. The Pelicans won 116-108. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It was a trust in Trey Murphy III that changed both that last Lakers game and the play-in win over the LA Clippers. The rookie says this group plays with “a lot of energy. We just play together, we share the ball, and I just got to thank my teammates. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that stuff. Coach Green told me before I got in, ‘Look, we got nothing to lose. Just go hoop,’ and it put a lot of confidence in me and made me settle down a lot. I really appreciate him for that.”

Green said this preseason he would coach from a place of love. He lived up to that promise, and so have the guys on the court. Every single player to suit up this season has trusted the process, and it has culminated in what will be the biggest 83rd game party the N.B.A. has ever seen.

The league sees what is happening and has flexed the season’s last two games to national broadcasts.

Willy Hernangomez said the season’s journey has been “amazing because I said between our guys in the locker room that this might be one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been around, even the national team. It’s so funny to be around this locker room, it’s so humble…the future is bright. Everybody in New Orleans will be so excited about this team and this organization.”

The fans (affectionately the Pels12) are doing their part to show an appreciation for everyone who helped get them to this point. Josh Hart received a prolonged standing ovation late in the first quarter. It would not be surprising to see Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the stands for the play-in game next week. The family culture is strong. Those two guys are still a part of this season’s team story.

The organization has been fully embracing the city’s identity. The social media team is at the heart of the hilariously petty comebacks at some of the more ill-informed narratives tossed out about the team.

There was even a “Cash Money Records takin’ over the Smoothie King Center concert” at halftime last Sunday. Two globally known but locally grown musical greats, Juvenile, and Mannie Fresh, performed at halftime to close out the regular season.

The Pelicans beat Portland by 33 without Brandon Ingram. They are peaking at the right time and will get Ingram and possibly Zion Williamson back for the playoffs. Doubt their three-point shooting, experience on the bench, and lack of chemistry, but no one can ever question this team’s heart. Not after they’ve Griddy’d their way back into the playoff race.

Coach Green said making the playoffs after a 1-12 start is “an unbelievable feeling. So grateful for Mrs. (Gayle) Benson and Griff (David Griffin) and Trajan (Langdon) and Swin (Cash), our coaching staff, our medical team, our performance team, and then our guys. They’re great. That’s how you withstand tough times is with character, and we have extremely high-character individuals in our organization, and it’s been a joy to go at it with them.”

“It’s incredible. Once again, these guys, we keep God first in everything that we do. We try to treat each other with respect no matter what our record is, and every day that they come in the gym, they compete, and that’s from top to bottom, all of our players, all of our staff. We just stayed with it, and it’s incredible to see the results, so we’re extremely happy.”

Ingram added, “To God be the glory. It’s our time. All the work that we’ve put in every single day, all the work that we’ve put in this summer, we finally get to showcase it on the biggest stage. I’m excited. I know my teammates are excited. Willie is excited. You should see Jose dancing behind this screen right now. I know he’s excited. It’s going to be fun.”