Last Saturday after a disappointing loss to the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans frontman Zion Williamson told reporters he felt his team was close to what it would be. The Pelicans had just played two tough games with losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Spurs, but he thought things could turn around soon.
“I feel like we̵
Monday night, consider a step in the right direction.
Behind Williamson’s accusation in the third quarter, the Pelicans toppled the team with the best record in the league and held late to defeat the Utah Jazz, 129-124.
The Pelicans held a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but then the Jazz cut it all the way down to 1 in the last minute before holding on with a few stops on Utah’s last three possessions. Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy joked that his team did not hold on to the lead as much as it was able to build it high enough for where Utah could not come back.
The Jazz (27-8) came into the game with a plus-161 point difference in the third quarter this season, which was 70 points better than any other team. But the Pelicans (15-19) outscored them by 16 in the third quarter on Monday, the worst difference in the third quarter for Utah.
“Tonight we would come out strong in the third,” said Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball. “It was one of the focal points of the coaching staff. This game, Utah, has blown people out in the third quarter, so that was one of the focuses. Z led a bit of the charge in the third for us.”
Williamson scored 15 of his 26 points in the third quarter as the Pelicans built their lead.
“My mindset was what I could do to get my teammates energy, that’s what I want to do,” Williamson said. “In the third quarter, after reading the first two quarters, I really got a feel for it and I was on the attack.”
Attack on the basket was the focus of the pelicans all night. They finished with 74 points in the paint, the most any team has scored in the paint in regulation against the Jazz in the last 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“It’s crazy that we got so much to the basket with a defensive player like Rudy Gobert, where he’s at the rim all night, every single night,” Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said of Utah’s All-Star center. “But we made it happen.”
Scoring so much in the paint meant the Pelicans did not have to rely on 3-point attempts. New Orleans went 7-for-11 from a 3-point range, and the 11 attempts were the fewest in a game by any winning team over the past four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Along with Utah’s 43 deep attempts, the game had played the biggest difference between two teams to 3-point attempts this season.
Zion Williamson misses his original shot, but gets his own rebound and drops a roar after the duck-1 basket.
When Williamson scored in the third quarter, the Pelicans stayed with him and he even went straight to Gobert, a twice-year-old defender on a couple of occasions.
“That means he’s fearless,” Ingram said of the 20-year-old Williamson. “Knowing that [Gobert is] a twice-year-old defensive player or just a really, really, really good defensive player, he’s just fearless. He knows the angles of the shot. He knows what to do when he enters the game. He will not waver for anyone. He will go on and on until he gets to the place where he wants to come. “
So far this season, the Pelicans have wins over the Utah, Milwaukee and Phoenix Suns as well as a 24-point comeback over the Boston Celtics, but also have losses against the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, teams at the bottom of the standings in their respective conferences.
For a team that Williamson believes is “almost there,” Van Gundy said the Pelicans are talented enough to beat anyone in the league, but they make too many mistakes and have not been consistent enough in defense to tie together winners who they will .
“For us to take it to the next level, we have to keep it going for the next few games,” Williamson said. “We have to be consistent with that.”