Graham, McCollum lead Pelicans past Bulls 126-109

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Devonte’ Graham unraveled his braids and let his hair, as well as his shot, flow freely.

Graham hit five 3-pointers on his way to a season-high 30 points, CJ McCollum scored 25 and the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Chicago Bulls 126-109 on Thursday night.

“It was good, man, to see the ball go in, play with confidence. It was fun,” Graham said, but sounded reluctant when asked if he’ll keep his hair unbraided.

“For now, I guess, until I play bad,” said Graham, a fourth-year pro out of Kansas. “I used to have this little nappy head in college. I guess everybody’s just surprised by it now.”

Jonas Valanciunas added 16 points and 19 rebounds for the Pelicans, who won for the fourth time in six games as they try to solidify their hold on a Western Conference play-in spot.

Zach LaVine scored 39 points and Coby White added 23 for Chicago, which played without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan (left groin) and lost for the fifth time in six games. The slumping Bulls are in danger of sliding out of a top-six seed in the East (the seventh and eighth seeds have to host the play-in round).

“It’s frustrating; obviously, we’re just trying to figure out how to get back into a rhythm,” LaVine said. “No one is going to help us. We’ve done enough talking. We’ve done enough of trying to pep talk and rallying to keep guys’ spirits up, but we just have to get it done now.”

Pelicans undrafted rookie Jose Alvarado scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, hitting a driving layup, floater and 3 in succession to help fuel a pivotal surge in which New Orleans built a 15-point cushion. Graham’s deep 3 and Valanciunas’ 10-foot turnaround capped the spurt and made it 107-92 with 6:26 to go.

Javonte Green and Alex Caruso each hit a 3 to help Chicago pull to 109-102 before Graham hit a momentum-halting driving layup as he was fouled. Graham added two more free throws to give him five straight points.

“We need that from him, especially in a game like tonight,” Alvarado said. “Wasn’t shocked. That’s who he is. He better keep that hairstyle because I guess that’s what it is.”

McCollum’s bank shot made it 116-102 with 2:01 left and Chicago removed its starters soon after.

LaVine scored 16 points in the first quarter, when he hit five of his first six shots, including all three 3s he attempted, and helped Chicago build a lead as large as nine.

But the Pelicans erased the deficit in the second. Graham’s 29-foot 3, followed by his driving floater while being fouled, put New Orleans up 52-50.

The Pelicans were ahead by four late in the period on Herb Jones’ putback, but White drained his fourth of five 3s on the night to pull Chicago to 63-62 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Bulls: Caruso finished with 11 points. … Tristan Thompson was ejected in the final half-minute, asses consecutive technical fouls while he was yelling from the bench. … Coach Billy Donovan indicated the decision to hold out DeRozan, whose 26.7 points per game leads Chicago, was precautionary. “He’s been experiencing some tightness for a little bit,” Donovan said. “He didn’t think it was anything too severe. He received imaging, and there was nothing significant. … The wisest choice was not to push him and for him not to push himself.”

Pelicans: Outscored Chicago 40-24 in the fourth quarter. … Outrebounded Chicago 43-33 … Made 12 of 29 3s (41.4%), well above their 33.2% for the season coming in. … Brandon Ingram, who leads the Pelicans with 22.8 points per game, missed his ninth straight game with a sore hamstring.

NANCE’S RETURN

Larry Nance Jr. made his Pelicans debut, playing for the first time since Jan. 5, when he was with Portland. He had nine points, four rebounds and blocked a shot by Thompson. Nance was part of a trade that also brought McCollum to New Orleans, but he was rehabbing from knee surgery at the time.

“I feel great and looking forward to seeing how it responds tomorrow,” Nance said. “I was just glad to be out there.”

Pelicans coach Willie Green said Nance looked “a little rusty with some of his floaters and (shooting) touch, but he picked it up as the game progressed. We all can see he’s going to play a big role for us coming down the stretch.”

UP NEXT

Bulls: Visit Cleveland on Saturday night in the third of five straight road games.

Pelicans: Host San Antonio on Friday night in the second of three straight at home.

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