Zion plays down stretch of win: 'I felt alive again'

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New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson made it clear what it felt like to be on the floor at the end of the Pelicans’ 109-99 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night.

“I felt alive again,” Williamson told ESPN’s Malika Andrews. “My competitive spirit was there, and I’m glad Coach and the whole team trusted me to finish the game out.”

Williamson was on what the team called a “burst restriction” in the Pelicans’ first two games inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, after returning from quarantine. He did not play down the stretch in the opener last Thursday — a close loss to Utah — and didn’t play in the fourth quarter when the Pelicans were blown out by the Clippers.

So when Williamson, who looked dejected on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Jazz and Clippers, was able to contribute down the stretch in Monday’s win, it made him a happy camper once again.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry and the team medical staff determined pregame that Williamson — who played 15 minutes in the opener and 14 minutes against the Clippers — was going to play about 25 minutes and finish the game.

Williamson was on a restriction after he left the bubble on July 16 for a family medical emergency and didn’t return until July 24. He had to quarantine for four days following his return so he didn’t play in New Orleans’ three scrimmage games.

Because of that, the Pelicans were slowly going to increase his minutes in Orlando. In the locker room, Williamson said his “feeling alive” comment came after he had to watch the Pelicans lose from the sideline.

“I ain’t gonna lie to you, it’s just different in a bad way when I’m on the bench in the fourth quarter, and there’s nothing I can do to help my team win,” Williamson said. “So I said I felt alive — it was just great to be out there doing whatever I can to help my team win. And as for the energy part, me and my teammates can just feed off each other.”

Williamson finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and tied his career high with five assists in just over 25 minutes. He was 9-for-21 from the field, a career high in field goal attempts, and was aggressive from the opening tip.

“It was a little bit of both from myself and the coaching staff,” Williamson said of his early aggressiveness. “They were telling me to try to give the team a spark and that’s what I was trying to do, give my team a spark, get ’em going.”

Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 24 points, and he and Williamson combined for 19 points in the fourth quarter.

“Tonight was important,” Ingram said. “Fourth quarter, we had a sense of urgency just to try and end the basketball game, so to speak. We were up seven or up five, but we knew we needed some key buckets at the end that we had to get. We knew we had to move the basketball, get into the interior and find the open guy. That’s what we worked on.”

Gentry said it was nice for both Ingram and Williamson to get going at the same time to help lift the Pelicans to a much-needed victory.

“I think it’s great,” Gentry said. “Obviously, we didn’t mince words at all. We knew this was a game we had to win to even stay afloat at all, so I thought our guys did a really good job with it. And when you have two really young players like that who stepped up for you, and Josh Hart, you know, Josh is a very young kid, too. I think if you look at it, we have a good, young nucleus of players along with some of the veteran guys we have.”

Hart had 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench for New Orleans, who stayed in the Western Conference playoff hunt with the win. New Orleans is 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

Hart said it was big to get the victory, especially considering how New Orleans has let some close ones slip away this season — including the bubble opener against Utah. “We’ve got five games left now, but if we don’t get it now, we won’t be playing Aug. 18 or whenever,” Hart said, referencing the playoffs. “It was big in terms of morale to get this win.”

Williamson praised veteran guard Jrue Holiday‘s defense. Holiday helped hold Memphis guard Ja Morant to 5-for-21 shooting.

“Man, that’s respect,” Williamson said. “Like I can’t do nothing but respect that. I watch him up there all game playing great defense. And he does it his own way. … He gets our team going on defense.”

According to Second Spectrum data, Morant went 2-for-7 when Holiday was the closest defender, but Holiday also went under on several screens, forcing Morant into more 3-pointers than usual. Morant was 1-for-10, with career highs in 3-point attempts and 3-point misses.

Gentry credited his team with adapting to Williamson’s restrictions over the first two games and figuring out a way to come out on top.

“You miss a guy for 44 games and then you drop him and he’s a huge factor to what we are doing,” Gentry said. “But one thing I like about our team: We’ve got a lot of guys who can adapt to situations and guys who can adapt to a player of his magnitude into our lineup. Our guys want to win, and I think that’s the key right there. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what our players want.”

New Orleans next plays Thursday (1:30 p.m. ET) against the Sacramento Kings before taking on the Washington Wizards on Friday.



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