NEW ORLEANS — When Clippers star Kawhi Leonard hit big shots in the closing minutes, the Pelicans answered with Brandon Ingram, whose recent form has sent his team surging up the standings.
Ingram scored 36 points, bringing fans to their feet with an array of clutch, mid-range jump shots, and New Orleans beat Los Angeles 122-114.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to go against the best and you’ve got to beat them,” Ingram said. “That’s one of the things that was in my head tonight, just trying to get this win.”
Jonas Valanciunas scored 23 points – 15 in the third quarter – and grabbed 12 rebounds for New Orleans (40-38), which won for the seventh time in eight games and pulled within a half-game of the Clippers (41-38) for sixth place in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles lost its second straight despite getting 40 points from Leonard, who played 41 minutes in New Orleans after being restricted to 18 minutes during a loss at Memphis a night earlier so that he’d be more available against the hotly pursuing Pelicans.
“We just have to give credit to them as they played amazing,” Leonard said. “Ingram played great.”
CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III each added 19 points for New Orleans, which trailed for most of the first three quarters but maintained a slim lead throughout the fourth.
Ingram made 13 of 23 shots, including nine shots away from the rim, ranging from pull-ups to tough turnaround fades.
“Those are I’m-just-better-than-you shots,” McCollum said of Ingram’s shot selection. “He’s relying on his skill set and his comfort level. Regardless of analytics and what’s considered a good shot, that’s a great shot for him.”
Ingram also made 10 of 11 free throws, and has now scored 25 or more points in nine straight games.
“Just maneuvering a little bit, seeing what’s open, seeing what spot I can get to on the floor, not forcing the game,” Ingram said. “That’s the biggest thing: Seeing what’s the best shot for the team, but also making sure that I stay aggressive.”
Russell Westbrook had 24 points and nine assists for the Clippers. Ivica Zubac added 15 points and Norman Powell 12.
Westbrook, who scored 36 in a victory over Memphis on Wednesday, had 19 in the first half in New Orleans, helping the Clippers build a lead as large as 12.
Ingram and McCollum each scored 15 in the first two periods to help the Pelicans gradually trim that deficit down substantially by halftime, when Los Angeles led 56-55.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Los Angeles defenders tried to blitz Ingram when the star forward had the ball, and “he still got where he got with the blitz.”
“It was just a tough night for us defensively,” Lue added. “After that first quarter, they really picked up the offensive scoring and it was just tough to slow them down.”
Pelicans coach Willie Green made a defensive switch in the second half, assigning the 6-foot-8 Ingram to guard the 6-3 Westbrook. Ingram limited the explosive guard to five points from that point on.
“I was just trying to put some length on him and trying to discourage him going to the rim,” Ingram said.