COLUMN: For Pelicans, it was darkest before dawn

January 26 was one of the darkest days in New Orleans sports history.

At least, that’s what we thought.

Somehow, we’ve made it to this point, I don’t know how it happened, and I couldn’t be happier that it has.

The Pelicans four game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers was the apex of New Orleans’ history as an NBA city. It was the franchise’s most dominant stretch of basketball ever — bar none, given the stakes — and it’s game three home victory over Portland was somehow far more impressive than the 119-102 final ever could indicate.

These Pels are not the first good basketball team the city has had, but there haven’t been many of relevance. All the pieces fit, and the team has found its identity on both sides of the ball. When Alvin Gentry noted that his team ranked fourth in the league defensively for the past 50 game stretch, it crystalized part of how this team made a leap nobody could have expected.

Nobody expected it because of January 26. That was the night professional basketball was supposed to die in New Orleans.

It was the night Demarcus Cousins tore his Achilles’ tendon, his season done and also the Pelicans’ as even its most devoted fanatics would probably admit they believed.

The trade for Cousins at the All-Star break of the 2016-17 season was lauded by NBA followers league-wide as a massive heist for New Orleans. Cousins was established as a dominating big man with precious few peers — his now teammate Anthony Davis one of those few. Together, the duo of athletically gifted big men was hoped to present unique problems for a league that has trended small.

This season, Cousins was magnificent in his time on the floor, posting averages of 25 points, 13 rebounds and 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks a night. He also dished 5.4 assists a game.

The night he was injured, the Pelicans were starting to finally blend his gifts with Davis’ to result in a winning formula. The team had won 7 of 8 games and were putting the finishing touches on a win over the league-leading Rockets when Cousins missed a free throw and crashed down to the floor in pain while chasing a rebound. The worst fear was soon realized—Cousins had torn his Achilles tendon, a severe injury that not only meant he would be out for the season, but that put his future as a dominant player into question.

It felt like more of the same for fans of the Pelicans, a team that seemed to always take two steps back after taking one step toward region-wide fan acceptance. As soon as the fans have a reason to believe, they’re almost mocked by circumstance, as if it were silly to believe New Orleans would ever evolve into a real NBA city.

It didn’t help that Jan. 26 was less than two weeks past Jan. 14. The day of Saints/Vikings. Of Stefon Diggs. Of the Whiff Six. The Pels had given us something to latch on to, and it had seemingly been snatched away.

But something strange happened after the first few weeks following the injury. New Orleans went 1-5 in the immediate wake of his loss, and a random February win with lottery-bound Brooklyn hardly seemed relevant to anything lasting. 138-128. Fun and meaningless.

But the wins kept piling up. Two, then three, then on to 10. Anthony Davis evolved into an unstoppable force, playing the highest level of basketball in his career. After Davis was hindered with an ankle injury, the team played some up and down ball before closing the season on a five-game streak to clinch the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs — a streak that has now stretched to nine.

The Pelicans were magnificent against the Blazers. Their Game 3 peak in front of a sellout crowd came before a Game 4 in which the Blazers kept close for a half in a last gasp effort before the Pels took firm control.

It’s been done with great team chemistry. Davis rolling to the rim with Rajon Rondo manipulating defenses as primary ball handler. Jrue Holiday in attack mode. Nikola Mirotic proving to be yet another steal of a big man (the team got him for Omer Asik, lest we forget). At times, they’ve looked unstoppable at both ends of the floor.

Even the best form of the Pelicans has its work cut out with the Warriors.

But the Pelicans have made people believe. And this time, I think that belief will stick.

They do say it’s always darkest before the dawn. I suppose so, New Orleans.

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