The New Orleans Pelicans turned Zion Williamson loose and it paid off.
They’re going to need more of that if they hope to make the playoffs.
The organization was extremely cautious in monitoring their prized rookie’s minutes in the first two games after the NBA restart. His conditioning was behind schedule after he missed 13 days of work while tending to a family emergency.
He wasn’t on the floor down the stretch of a two-point loss to the Utah Jazz in the opener and he didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s lost cause against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But after playing a total of 29 minutes in those two games, Williamson played 25 and scored six of his 23 points down the stretch of a must-win 109-99 victory against Memphis on Monday.
He figures to play significant minutes when New Orleans plays Sacramento on Thursday near Orlando in a game crucial to both teams’ playoff hopes.
“My competitive spirit was turned on,” Williamson said. “I was just happy the training staff and my team trust me to be able to close the game out.”
The Pelicans (29-38) closed out their first victory in three games during the restart.
“Just having Zion out there at the end of the game I think is big,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “I feel like it takes a lot of pressure off people. (We have) so many threats on the floor, so many different shooters out there, so many different threats, it kind of makes it easier on us.”
New Orleans is within striking distance of a play-in position with five games to play.
The Kings (28-39) are a game behind the Pelicans after losing in overtime against Dallas on Tuesday to fall to 0-3 in the restart.
“We just have to learn how to close games,” guard Kent Bazemore said. “I told the guys after the game, ‘We’re progressing, not regressing.’ We got five games left and if we figure it out — we run these five off — who knows where we are?
“We’re still right in the thick of things. There isn’t a team who’s too out in front. … We’re right there. The optimism is still there. There’s no locker room that I’m going to be a part of that my guys aren’t going to feel like we aren’t still in it. So, until we get out of here, whenever that is, we’re going to have a chance.”
In order to have a better chance they can’t afford a free-throw disparity like the one they had Tuesday. Dallas made 39 of 50 free throws and Sacramento made 8 of 12.
“All game long, they kept going to the foul line,” Kings coach Luke Walton said. “I’ve never seen a 50 free throw game before. Our whole team was in foul trouble all night. It was tough to keep a rhythm going.”
The Pelicans won the only previous meeting this season, prevailing 117-115 in Sacramento on Jan. 4. The teams were prepared to meet again in Sacramento on March 11 in the final game before the league went on hiatus, but that game was postponed shortly before it was scheduled to tip off.
They will meet again on Tuesday.
–Field Level Media