Lonzo Ball’s return from injury was a heroic one.
Behind a stellar line of 27 points — just two away from tying his career-best of 29, eight 3-pointers (a new career-high) and nine assists, Zo sparked the New Orleans Pelicans into snapping a two-game losing streak, beating the Houston Rockets by a final score of 122-115.
The journey has been long, and I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that he’s nowhere near the final destination regarding his game yet, but it’s time to marvel at Lonzo’s improvement.
On a night where Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Kira Lewis Jr. and Josh Hart were all unavailable — and the team lost Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Steven Adams during the contest, Ball stepped up big. He was fantastic from the jump, sinking four threes quickly in the first quarter, and then late, connecting on a couple more bombs in the fourth when it was anybody’s game to win.
“I think what Lonzo’s done over the last two years, to improve his shooting, is one of the best stories in this league,” Stan Van Gundy said to postgame media. “That’s a hard thing to do and he made a total overhaul of his shot from the way he shot the ball coming up through high school, college and his first couple of years in the NBA. Now, he’s a great shooter. And now he’s going to the line and making free throws.
“All the credit in the world to him. And even then, he’ll give the credit to Fred — which Fred deserves a lot of credit, but no coach gets anywhere with the player without the player’s work ethic, humility and desire to learn. So, those guys have been a great combo. Lonzo deserves all the success he’s having.”
Defeat from the jaws of victory almost became a thing when Ball was forced out of the game with 1:24 remaining after experiencing cramping in his right leg. However, the Pelicans had a four-point lead at the time and several other notable contributors, namely James Johnson and Willy Hernangomez, were able to push New Orleans across the finish line.
Johnson has been a revelation since coming over in the JJ Redick trade with Dallas. He tallied 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists, four blocks and a couple of steals tonight, and has stuffed the stat sheet in each of his three games with the Pelicans. He’s a professional basketball player at a position of need that the entire The Bird Writes staff has long been yearning to see added to this roster.
A pair of TOUGH makes from James Johnson— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) April 5, 2021
The vet's up to 17 pic.twitter.com/HnKQypM6tc
With Johnson’s contract expiring this summer, I’m ready to go on record and say that I hope David Griffin and Trajan Langdon bring this veteran back. He’s versatile, can defend, be a playmaker, hit shots, get rebounds, rack up steals and blocks, give multiple efforts and lead. He can fill holes that arise within a ballgame.
When Ball’s leg cramping forced him to the sidelines, it was Johnson who dictated the offense, drew a double team and found Hernangomez for an easy score. It was Johnson who prevented an easy bucket at the rim, forcing Christian Wood to make two from the line. (He missed one.) It was Johnson who helped Eric Bledsoe circumvent Houston’s pressure in getting the ball up the court in the waning seconds.
James Johnson is a winner. The Pelicans have sorely needed a man of his talents.
Willy Hernangomez may be the third center on the pecking order, but he finished tonight’s game and his final line tells the story: 15 points, 12 rebounds and a perfect 7-7 from the field. The Rockets tried to small ball their way to the win, but New Orleans smartly utilized their size advantage often.
“Billy” made excellent reads and probed for good scoring opportunities throughout; however, Steven Adams (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Jaxson Hayes (11 points, seven rebounds) posted positive moments as well.
Jax was particularly impressive considering he was asked to play the entire night out of position — starting and staying at the four spot. Among the usual high-flying theatrics, he nailed a 3-pointer from the corner early and then registered this must-see-to-believe spectacle.
After hitting four free throws in the middle of the second quarter, Eric Bledsoe proceeded to find his confidence from the 3-point line, knocking down four triples en route to 19 points and four rebounds.
Wesley Iwundu (three points, five rebounds) and Naji Marshall (12 points, five assists) each hit a big three in the fourth quarter, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker was poised (five points, two steals, one block) to make a big splash until a sprained ankle eliminated him from the contest.
Fingers crossed regarding the incident where Kevin Porter Jr. rolled into NAW’s leg. I fear Nickeil may miss extended time as the injury appeared to be of the dreaded high-ankle variety. Hopefully, I’m wrong — because I’m not a doctor — or that he’s simply a fast healer.
The Pelicans welcomed a couple of players back to the rotation (Zo, Adams) but watched two leave early due to injury (NAW, Adams — potential concussion). New Orleans will have the day off tomorrow before taking the court again on Tuesday when they battle the Hawks in Atlanta. Isaiah Thomas, on a fresh 10-day contract, is expected to be in uniform even if Zion and Ingram are still sidelined.
Coupled with the Warriors falling to the Hawks Sunday, the Pelicans’ victory pulls them to within half a game of the 10th seed in the Western Conference which is currently occupied by Golden State.
23 games remain on the schedule. The 2021 Play-In Tournament sits directly in the crosshairs.