The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
There’s a measured, bloodless way that a lot of basketball writers tend to react to controversial late-game calls that can mean the difference between winning and losing. Sure, the refs might have missed that one. But that’s just one possession, and it didn’t really “cost” Team X the game nearly as much as did their spending the whole first half refusing to guard Team Y. Take care of business, and you won’t leave it in the refs’ hands.
This approach has the virtue of being almost invariably correct. No, the bang-bang play at the end of a one-point game wouldn’t have swung the game if a bunch of other things had unfolded differently and it hadn’t been a one-point game; this is some very smart math we have done! It also serves to separate media types from the rabid fans who start gnashing teeth over the crooked injustice of perceived bullshit officiating. This makes us feel smarter than the people screaming on social media, and who doesn’t like to feel smart for a change?
All of that logic misses a pretty important point, though: Sometimes the call was bullshit, injustice was done, and players and fans should be pissed off. Unfortunately, the arc of the moral sporting universe doesn’t always bend toward justice. If you’re lucky enough to see an opportunity arise, though, you’ve got to take advantage of it. Four months ago, Brandon Ingram did just that.
After a brutal injury-plagued start to the season that featured a 13-game losing streak and seemed to portend massive shake-ups, the Pelicans finally found their footing in early January, winning six of eight to get within striking distance of the West’s no. 8 seed. One big reason for that surge: Ingram, the former no. 2 pick. A key part of the offseason blockbuster that sent Anthony Davis to Los Angeles, Ingram had stepped into duty as New Orleans’s top offensive option and thrived, earning his first All-Star nod and Most Improved Player consideration.
On January 6, the Pelicans fell down by double digits to a red-hot Jazz team that entered Smoothie King Center as winners of 10 of past 11. But Ingram helped lead a comeback effort with 19 of his 35 points in the second half, including a big 3-pointer that knotted the score at 126 with 1:28 to go. After Donovan Mitchell put the Jazz back ahead with a runner, and the two teams traded missed jumpers, Ingram found himself with the ball in his hands, a few seconds left on the clock, and a chance to force overtime; all he had to do was get past Rudy Gobert.
Ingram raced the length of the floor, took it to the rack, challenged the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year … and, after an aerial collision, hit the ground in a heap as time expired. Replays would show that Gobert’s left forearm came down on Ingram’s right wrist as he extended toward the hoop, but despite a review—solely to ensure there wasn’t a clock malfunction, as it turned out—the no-call stood. The NBA’s Last Two Minutes report later confirmed that Gobert did foul Ingram, which should have sent Ingram to the line with a chance to force overtime. Instead: no whistle, no bucket, Jazz win.
Around the gray cloud of that bummer for New Orleans, though, came a silver lining: The two teams would meet again, right back on the same court, just 10 days later. And while the Pelicans were without Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, and JJ Redick, Ingram was hell-bent on seizing revenge—to the tune of a career-high 49 points on 15-for-25 shooting, eight rebounds, and six assists in 41 minutes of work, the best game of the best season of his young career.
He drove right at Gobert on the Pelicans’ first possession, and snuffed out the Jazz center’s first shot attempt for good measure. In the final minute of the first half, Ingram pump-faked Royce O’Neale into the stratosphere, then promptly made a beeline for Gobert’s neck:
Brandon Ingram almost ended Gobert pic.twitter.com/Xu8gstOJJ7— Chris Montano (@gswchris) January 17, 2020
He kept on attacking the Stifle Tower in the second half, and with just under 8:30 to go in the third quarter, Ingram got him, uncorking a right-to-left crossover as he snaked around a screen, then twisting to use the rim as an impediment and finishing with a flush the Frenchman couldn’t stop:
Brandon Ingram finally gets a little payback on Rudy Gobert pic.twitter.com/O1nGHrMhzP— ClutchPoints NBA (@ClutchPointsNBA) January 17, 2020
Ingram and Mitchell traded basket after basket in a delightful duel as the two teams fought in a phone booth for most of the second half. With the Jazz holding a one-point lead in the closing seconds, Mitchell missed a stepback jumper, and Ingram grabbed the rebound; it was an almost eerie echo of the final stages from the previous meeting. This time, though, New Orleans called a timeout to advance the ball and allow head coach Alvin Gentry to draw up a play. Once again, Ingram attacked … but now, he wasn’t letting the refs have a say.
BRANDON. INGRAM. CLUTCH.— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 17, 2020
Career-high 44 PTS and the game-winner. Wow. pic.twitter.com/jlDM1KKKyo
… Or so we thought.
See, there were still two-tenths of a second on the clock when Ingram’s jumper splashed through. That wasn’t enough time for a Jazz player to catch and shoot—eternal shouts to Trent Tucker and the rule that bears his name—but it was enough time for Utah to toss a lob to the rim and try for a tip-in. It was also enough time for some shenanigans:
After further review, refs give Rudy Gobert free-throws. He goes 1/2. Game headed to OT. pic.twitter.com/XJFoQEB5Jk— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) January 17, 2020
The refs whistled Pelicans rookie Jaxson Hayes for grabbing Gobert’s left arm on the lob attempt, inviting the fury and vitriol of the New Orleans faithful and sending Gobert to the line for two shots that could’ve won the game. (Enter the L2M report, once again.) In proof that there are basketball gods and that they still honor some of their commandments, Rudy missed the first; he did make the second, though, sending the game to OT.
You would’ve understood if New Orleans had felt deflated after seeing a shot at victory over Utah snatched away by the zebras for the second time in a week and a half. But the Pelicans and Ingram, who is growing into a leadership position, stayed frosty.
“I think guys on the bench were just kind of like, ‘Not again,’” Pelicans center Derrick Favors, in his first season with the club after spending parts of nine seasons with the Jazz, told reporters after the game. “We took a minute, took five breaths and said, ‘We’ve got to let that go and move on.’ That’s what we did.”
When the Jazz started double-teaming him to try to force the ball out of his hands, Ingram calmly dumped the ball off to Favors for buckets to keep New Orleans close. And with just under 90 seconds remaining, trailing by two and racing down the court in transition, Ingram froze Bojan Bogdanovic with a hesitation dribble, sprinted down that same right wing toward that same basket, and once again met Gobert in the air:
This time, the refs called the foul—Gobert’s sixth, sending him to the sideline with 1:19 to go in overtime.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder used his coach’s challenge to review the play in an attempt to keep his top stopper on the court, but to no avail; while you could make the argument that Gobert stayed in legal position throughout Ingram’s drive, crew chief Mark Ayotte told a pool reporter after the game that the refs “did not see clear and conclusive evidence to overturn the play.” With the heart of Utah’s defense no longer beating, the Pelicans scored the final eight points of the game to secure a joyous exorcism of a 138-132 win.
If you’re going to have questionable officiating—and, with humans still on the job, we are—it’s at least nice when things even out. It’s just rare for that to happen in the space of a week and a half, and rarer still for the player who got the short end of the stick the first time around to equalize in such eye-popping fashion. New Orleans’s victory, and Ingram’s superstar performance in it, carried the satisfying feeling of a wrong righted.
Well, depending on which jersey you’re rooting for, I suppose.