The trio behind the New Orleans Pelicans' improbable playoff run

IT IS JUST after midnight when 2-year-old Nazanin Alvarado takes the podium with her dad, New Orleans Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado, following Sunday's Game 4 win over the Phoenix Suns.

Donning a white T-shirt that reads "My heart is on that court" and a pair of high pigtails, she begins the news conference in her dad's lap. As her dad awaits the first question, she grabs the mic, ready to address the media.

Before she can speak, Jose takes the mic back from her, ready on his own to discuss the team's 15-point victory over the conference's No. 1 seed. For approximately four seconds, Nazanin sits still. Then, she decides she's had enough and hops down, relocating to the back of the room as her dad attempts to answer the media's question.

Less than 30 seconds later, she's back at the podium, hoisted into her dad's lap with a giggle. Ten seconds later, she's off again.

"Hey, get her please," Alvarado says to a family member, who is seated nearby. "Hey, no more running around."

It's easy to see where she gets her energy. Her dad, now famous for his aggressive and swarming defense, had hounded the Suns on the court just minutes prior.

Alvarado is but one Pelicans rookie who has electrified the franchise this season. Undrafted, he was on a two-way contract until he received a four-year deal in March. Herbert Jones -- a second-round pick -- started 68 of 79 games and could sneak onto the NBA All-Defensive team this season. Their first-round pick, Trey Murphy III, led all rookies in three-point percentage this season among players who attempted at least 100 treys.

Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and coach Willie Green served as the foundation for New Orleans' resurgence. But the Pelicans could not have gone from 1-12 to open the season to pushing the top seed to Thursday's Game 6 without this rookie class.

"We don't make it to this point without the growth of our young guys," Green said ahead of Tuesday's Game 5, a 112-97 loss to the Suns. "At the end of the season, all those guys have played in meaningful games and they're ready for the moment."

THE ROOKIES HAVE been a major force behind the Pelicans' turnaround this season.

Murphy, the No. 17 pick in last year's draft, had earned regular minutes to open the season but his minutes stalled after the team notched just one win in the first 13 games.

But just as Murphy was heading down for yet another trip to the G League, Ingram hurt his hamstring, opening up the rotation.

Over the final 17 games of the regular season, as New Orleans was making its playoff push, Murphy averaged 9.7 points and shot 43.8% from deep.

In the winner-take-all play-in tournament game against the LA Clippers two weeks ago, Murphy made four 3-pointers in the final 16 minutes as the Pelicans completed a come-from-behind victory to clinch the No. 8 seed.

"It's pretty cool because there've been struggles that I've had shooting the ball earlier in the year and being able to come through in a really, really, really big game for our team was super important for me," Murphy says.

Then, there's the Pelicans' defensive stopper in Jones, who was the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year at Alabama. The hope was that his offensive game would come later.

New Orleans didn't even start him in summer league last year -- instead starting Kira Lewis, Didi Louzada, Murphy, Naji Marshall and Anzejs Pasecniks -- opting to bring Jones and Alvarado off the bench.

But they fell in love with his play. The buzz coming out of pre-training camp workouts was loud -- and filled with a catchphrase that would soon go viral:

Not On Herb.

After Josh Hart was injured in the Pelicans' first game, Jones was quickly inserted into the starting lineup and drew their opponents' best perimeter offensive player every night. In fact, Jones has defended 2022 All-Stars for 1,192 matchups in the halfcourt, second most in the league behind only Dorian Finney-Smith, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"It was different to get thrown in the fire super early," Jones says. "I feel like you're just forced to figure it out and adjust. And I feel like my teammates did a great job of helping me. My coaches did a great job of helping me adjust as quickly as possible."

WITH JUST UNDER nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Pelicans up 95-92, Murphy took a pass from McCollum from the left wing, and attempted a jumper to extend New Orleans' lead. The shot was no good, and Suns forward Cameron Johnson quickly grabbed the rebound and tossed it to Chris Paul.

And there was Alvarado, lurking near the Pelicans' bench, ready to try his patented steal on the Point God.

"Get ya ass back," Paul said as he flung his arm up the court.

On multiple occasions this season, the pesky guard has hidden in the corner after a Pelicans possession -- miss or make -- and then sprung on an unsuspecting ball handler to poke the ball away or force a travel.

The guard, generously listed at 6-foot, has always been known for his sneakiness. But his AAU coach told him it would never work in high school. His high school coach told him it would never work in college. His coaches at Georgia Tech told him it would never work in the NBA.

At each level, Alvarado has tried it. And at each level, it has worked.

Still, McCollum warned him ahead of the first-round series that it would never work on Paul.

Paul was ready for Alvarado in Game 2. But in Game 4, Alvarado got his revenge.

With 2:40 left in the game and the Pelicans up comfortably, Ingram drove to the basket and clanked a contested jumper. Phoenix forward Mikal Bridges grabbed the rebound and dumped it off to a cutting Paul as he turned the corner to head up the court.

Alvarado was waiting. Tucked away on the baseline corner by the Pelicans' bench, he took off behind Paul and forced the steal. Ingram picked up the ball, hit a cutting Jones for a basket and Alvarado skipped away screaming at the top of his lungs.

"I saw CJ and told him 'I got him' and he just started laughing," Alvarado says.

The Pelicans are the first playoff team since the 2005 Boston Celtics and 2005 Chicago Bulls with three rookies to play more than 80 minutes in a series, and are on pace to become the first team since the 2005 Bulls with three rookies to play more than 100 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

If New Orleans wants to send this series back to Phoenix for a Game 7, this trio of rookies will be a critical force in getting them there.

"They're our foundation," Ingram said after Tuesday's Game 5 loss. "They bring us energy every single day, every single game, every single practice. They are consistent in who they are, consistent in their work. They'll be important to us as we continue to try to make this run, shooting the basketball, on the defensive end and just making plays."