In maybe the most important game of their season, a game that very well may determine who the 8-seed is in the playoffs — a game that the New Orleans simply had to have, the Pelicans came out...flat against the Portland Trail Blazers.
But something funny happened Tuesday night in the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans started to find themselves in the second quarter, and in the second half they didn’t merely flip a switch, they took a sledgehammer to the turbo button and absolutely blew the doors off the Trail Blazers.
The Pelicans scored a massive 138-117 win Tuesday night and, in the process, took the season series from the Blazers 3-0. In the event that Portland and New Orleans finish with the same record come season’s end, New Orleans would own the tie breaker and potentially bounce Portland out of the playoffs, which wouldn’t be the first time the Pelicans have knocked the Blazers out of the postseason.
Zion Williamson scored a career-high 31 points in 27 minutes and Josh Hart, filling in for the still injured Brandon Ingram, was the heart (pun absolutely intended) and soul of the Pelicans with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and too many hustle plays to count.
If you lost hope in the first quarter, I wouldn’t blame you. Things started off nicely for New Orleans: Jrue Holiday swished a catch-and-shoot three from Derrick Favors on the Pelicans’ opening possession, Zion made two free throws and Holiday scored six more points. The Pelicans had a 14-13 lead at the first clock stoppage.
But things fell apart immediately after that Pelican timeout. New Orleans had six consecutive empty possessions and turned it over three times. Portland used those turnovers and some contributions from Damian Lillard, Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony to fuel a 17-0 run. In a blink, New Orleans 14-11 lead was suddenly a 28-14 deficit.
But like a boxer beating a standing eight-count, the Pelicans picked themselves off the canvas and not only threw some nice counterpunches, they landed some devastating haymakers and knocked Portland out.
The heroes of Tuesday’s game were Josh Hart and Zion Williamson. Williamson played in the ninth game of his young NBA career and it was his best to date. Zion had 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Coming into tonight only three 19-year-olds had ever had a line like that: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Luka Doncic. Zion joined that club and, per Andrew Lopez, did it in the least amount of minutes.
Zion was awesome tonight. He was too strong for Trevor Ariza, too fast for Hassan Whiteside, too overwhelming for any and every Blazer that dared challenge him. Zion caught lobs, he flashed a really sweet jab step, he was also fearless attacking the rim, getting to the free throw line 14 times and, oh yeah, knocked down 11 of them. He was the best player on the floor, plain and simple. Even the backboard felt the power.
THE BACKBOARD IS SHAKING QUITE A BIT pic.twitter.com/0haL4ijks6— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 12, 2020
While Williamson made the glamour plays, Josh Hart made the hustle plays that won’t show up on the stat sheet but stood out in real time. Hart had 17 points with 12 coming in the third. He lit the fuse that would turn into the Pelican comeback with his hustle.
The third quarter was when the Pelicans took the game from Portland. New Orleans dropped a 40-piece in the third, shot 68 percent in the quarter while holding Portland to 33 percent. It was arguably the best quarter New Orleans has played all season as the Pelicans out-rebounded Portland 17-4 and had 13 assists for 18 made shots.
This one sequence embodied the total team effort shown by New Orleans tonight. This is why New Orleans is an NBA League Pass favorite and a team on the rise.
This sequence has *EVERYTHING* pic.twitter.com/wJlFxZpb3e— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 12, 2020
Everybody ate tonight. Lonzo Ball had nine points, 10 assists and six rebounds; Jrue had 16 and 10; JJ Redick scored 20 in 20 minutes and hit four three-pointers; Frank Jackson had a nice burst of 13 points and five assists; and Nicolo Melli had 10 points and nine rebounds.
Tuesday night felt like a playoff game for both New Olreans and Portland and the Pelicans rose to the challenge admirably. And by winning tonight, New Orleans helps themselves even more because tomorrow night the Blazers have to play Memphis. Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the Pelicans will creep a little bit closer to the competition that lays between them and the playoffs while watching from their recliners.
The Pelicans have one more game before the All-Star break. New Orleans will host Oklahoma CIty on Thursday, looking to push its winning streak to four games.