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Zion Williamson and New Orleans Pelicans keep playoff hopes alive, top Memphis Grizzlies by 109-99 margin

The Pels sweep the season series, 3-0!

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

In their third game of the Orlando restart, they finally found the win column.

The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night by a score of 109-99, and their first bubble victory combined with the Spurs first defeat put them in the hunt with the rest of the pack for both the 8th and 9th seeds in the Western Conference.

For as much as the sky was falling after the dismal loss to the Los Angeles Clippers a few nights ago, things suddenly don’t seem so bad after a lone victory.

Perhaps more impressively, the Pelicans found a way to win a close game.

With 5:09 remaining, Ja Morant hit a three-pointer to cut New Orleans lead to just four points. But instead of the game getting tighter, the Pelicans stemmed the tide and restored a comfortable margin on the broad shoulders of Zion Williamson.

That’s right, the Pelicans’ famed rookie, whose minutes were significantly curtailed in the two losses, saw late fourth quarter action for the first time since March, and he quickly made the most of it. Zion scored five consecutive points to push his team’s lead back up to nine and New Orleans never stressed again.

This moment in time is important for several reasons. The Pelicans now have a memory to fall back on when things invariably get tight in the upcoming five games. While New Orleans has the easiest schedule of all the teams vying for the eight seed out West, the contests in Orlando have largely been extremely competitive, regardless of the teams involved. The Pelicans will find themselves at some point needing to close out their opponent in the final minutes.

Perhaps the bigger boon for all psyches, Williamson rediscovered his groove. In 25 minutes — a sizable increase from the first two games, Zion scored 23 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists. While the efficiency was missing (9-21 FGs, 5-10 FTs), one readily observed the return of his confidence.

Zion was assertive in the first quarter almost to a fault, putting up seven shots within the first five minutes. Although he only had a couple of buckets to show for it, that aggressiveness seemed to filter on down through the rest of the roster, and soon thereafter, the highlights started to flow.

But if one isn’t satisfied with a bucket or two, few things provide better clarity than, “I feel alive again.”

Williamson was good, damn good, but he wasn’t the only Pelican to fly high. Brandon Ingram finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals, but two big buckets late, which proved to be the daggers, were the greatest sight.

Asked about his strong performance coinciding nicely with Ingram’s, Williamson said, “That was just one of those things where we’re just two hoopers, and we’re just playing off each other. Coach is giving us the right guidance and putting us in the right position to make plays.”

With Ingram and Williamson carrying the scoring load, JJ Redick supplied the outside marksmanship (16 points, three three-pointers), Jrue Holiday was able to focus exclusively on stymying Ja Morant (the 2020 favorite for Rookie of the Year struggled immensely, making only five of 21 shots), and Josh Hart provided that spark off the bench, filling the role superbly as he has for much of this season.

“We probably play him more consecutive minutes than anyone because when he’s on the floor there’s a lot of good things that can happen,” Alvin Gentry said to postgame media. “He’s a really good rebounding guard that does a really good job. He’s pretty doggone good when we’re pushing the basketball and he has it in his hands, of getting it to the basket and either getting a layup or drawing a foul.”

New Orleans didn’t play perfectly — the offensive execution was spotty at times, the young group of Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Frank Jackson failed to contribute, and as a team the Pelicans missed 15 of 39 free throw attempts; however, they got enough positive contributions from their core and the defense was downright spectacular.

“I thought our defense was great,” Gentry said. “We did a good job, especially on (Ja) Morant. You have to try to keep him out of the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some threes, and luckily for us, he only made one of them. I thought we did a good job overall defensively, and that was the difference in the game.”

The Grizzlies failed to eclipse 40% from the field and 30% from three-point range. Moreover, after giving up an average of 27 points off 19 turnovers to opponents in their first two losses, the Pelicans allowed the Grizzlies to score only 15 points off 14 turnovers and a paltry seven fastbreak points to boot (New Orleans had 23).

Up next, the Pelicans get their first extended break of the eight seeding game schedule. They won’t play again until Thursday, when they face the Sacramento Kings in an early tip-off, 12:30 p.m. Central to be exact.

Two days to celebrate a win. That’s more like it.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.