Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are finally having fun: ‘We play for each other’

By | March 29, 2024

DETROIT – The last time the NBA world really interacted with the New Orleans Pelicans, the team embarrassed itself in its inaugural season tournament in Las Vegas in December, jokes about Zion Williamson’s weight were flying and everyone was gleefully passing attention to settle elsewhere.

The Williamson stuff is cheap folly, but plenty of it is earned given the high expectations. However, it overshadows his improved play – which seems to coincide with the Pelicans and their pursuit of home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

If the playoffs started today, they would be in a dogfight with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers are not a mirror image, but in terms of expectations the same words are spoken: show me.

The Pelicans have quietly asserted themselves, found an identity and worked in the darkness of the tough NBA schedule – hiding in plain sight, you might say. They are 18-7 since January 31, tied for second with Oklahoma City and Denver in that span, and behind the behemoth Boston Celtics (20-4).

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 15: Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans react after scoring against the LA Clippers during the fourth quarter of an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on 15 March 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The Pelicans stare at the Clippers for home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

That’s a strong sample size, which if the record were applied to a larger brand name, would produce morning talk show segments on championship preparation. But the Pelicans being who they are, more work needs to be done before the masses really pay them attention.

They have the makings of a playoff party crasher and maybe even more. Not many teams can put Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III on wings, giving super scorer Brandon Ingram the opportunity to go elsewhere until he has to play a game.

Jones is a strong candidate for All-Defense, and assistant coaches around the league are putting his name on the list very early on, which includes Victor Wembanyama, Jrue Holiday and Rudy Gobert.

He’s in the top 20 in steals, but he’s one of those defensemen where you know you’re great when you see it. Tall, lean, athletic wings who don’t run from their matchup aren’t exactly in abundance — and Jones should be elevated to the highest tier of defensemen after knocking on the door his first two years.

The signature play, which could be put in a Pelicans time capsule, is Jones hitting on a Paul George 3-pointer a few weeks ago. He had no business disputing it. Jones was in a sea of ​​bodies at the edge when George caught him at the top of the key.

“I was just trying to get out of it so the coaches wouldn’t say no one was contesting the three,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “Then I saw him slow down, so I thought, ‘Maybe I have a chance.’ I didn’t think I’d get there, but I’m treating it like it’s my last.

He swiped it, improbably, and then galloped down the lane for a dunk — two of his seven points in a 112-104 win over the Clippers, the game in which Williamson also took on Kawhi Leonard in the fourth quarter.

On a team with Jones and Murphy, that’s intentional and contagious.

“Everyone is starting to take that side of the ball a lot more personally,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I know it’s a team thing, but it comes down to one-on-one matches. If we don’t have to double down, disruptions won’t happen.”

It’s almost a matter of manliness, protect your man, and the Pelicans have risen to sixth in defensive efficiency.

“It’s more of a mentality now,” Jones said. “I don’t think I could say that at the beginning of the season.”

He admits that everything in Vegas was a turning point, and they’ve since put their heads down and committed themselves to that goal.

As a result, the Pelicans are in the Clippers’ rearview mirror for the fourth seed and home field advantage, close enough for an experienced team to recognize. And the experienced team can only run so fast against these young thoroughbreds, who are just beginning a six-game homestand that could change things forever.

“If we can get it, that would be great,” Williamson said. “Great for the city, great for the team. Wherever we are, we will make the best of it.”

Much of the cautious optimism comes from the fact that Williamson is a big unknown, but the latest returns have been impressive. Ever since he was called out by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, talk about his weight loss has been top of mind. But his play justifies the extra appearance. It’s not just the 24 points, six rebounds and nearly six assists he’s averaged since late January. He plays longer pieces and is available in ways that you couldn’t always count on.

“He’s committed to building his days,” Pelicans coach Willie Green recently told Yahoo Sports. “He comes in and gets multiple workouts a day. He keeps working on it. And you can tell he’s a great talent when he touches the floor.”

After an electric 36-point display on 13-of-14 shooting against the depressing Pistons, Williamson echoed Green’s words.

“I’m feeling great. And I’m having fun,” said Williamson. “And as far as stacking my days, it’s about doing all the little things – recovery, extra recovery, conditioning and extra conditioning – and as we get into the practice, just bringing a high intensity so my body can get used to it.”

Williamson having fun may sound cliché, but think of what he’s had to experience and hear along the way. Having fun is an achievement that many players with injuries do not always succeed in achieving.

Having fun is… fun.

That means no advantage for the opponent.

Guarding Williamson is no easy task, with very little comparison at this level. Perhaps Shaq comes closest in his prime, especially when he could run the floor better than anyone his size.

But imagine going for a spin with Mike Tyson in his prime and operating in that phone booth. Williamson punches you, his shoulder pressing into your chest. Your knees buckle, your teeth click.

Then he has the audacity to run past you and jump over you – leading to a moment in a film session where your coach doesn’t say much to you the next day, and when he does, you shoot him a look to say, ‘Try to defend him.’

If it’s not a fun day at the office, imagine what it would be like in a seven-game playoff series, with the extra stakes and the increased physicality.

Even Jones and Murphy laugh about it, joking that while the workouts are competitive, Williamson isn’t putting in full force.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 16: New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson #1 reacts after scoring during the first quarter of an NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Smoothie King Center on March 16, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 16: New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson #1 reacts after scoring during the first quarter of an NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Smoothie King Center on March 16, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Zion Williamson, who has yet to play in the postseason, could thrive in a physical seven-game series. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

And Williamson knows how crucial those two are in making his life easier, especially in the wake of Ingram’s recent knee injury that will thankfully only cost him another week or so.

‘Oh, you haven’t heard yet? Spice is the word,” Williamson said in an unrehearsed dad joke that needs more work. “What he brings to this team will not show up in the statistics. Same for Murf. We have great chemistry as a team, where we play for each other.”

But as good as their record is, it can still be better. The Pelicans are struggling in the clutch, with a record of 11-14. They are not alone. Veteran-laden Phoenix is ​​18-20, and the Suns will likely rue their struggles when this season ends. Golden State is in championship parity, and it’s 20-22, which qualifies for similar regrets.

The Pelicans don’t have the pedigree or even the expectations, but there is a real opportunity in front of them if they can recognize it. In their close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Williamson didn’t have a shot attempt in the final 3:26, and had just three in the fourth quarter.

That won’t be enough, even if Ingram will alleviate a lot of the pressure on Williamson and someone like CJ McCollum. Overall, they’re a decent enough team for the fourth quarter, but higher standards are a calling.

They know how important home field advantage is in Round 1. It means something for now, but it’s also symbolic of what they’re doing: everyone in the franchise is – finally – moving in the same direction.

“It’s important overall. If that means we finish fourth, fine. If it puts us in third place, that’s great,” Green said. “Hopefully, when it’s all over, we can be in a good place.”

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