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Zion, Herb come up clutch, lead Pelicans to 105-101 victory over Thunder

Trey Murphy said in postgame, “Herb Jones, First team All-Defense, 2022-23.” Psst, he’s right!

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans overcame the absences of several key players, a season-high 22 turnovers and a whistle that clearly favored Shai Gilgeous-Alexander above all others to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-101.

Two players, though, propelled the home team across the finish line.

Zion Williamson, who put everyone on triple-double watch following a 4-point, 4-rebound and 3-assist first quarter, carried the Pelicans offensively. The player of the game was the best scoring option and playmaker for New Orleans, weaving through multiple OKC defenders while taking contact to still achieve his objective. However, the referees saw things differently because they sent him to the free throw line only once.

But that lone attempt from the charity stripe was so timely.

With 44 seconds remaining in regulation and the Pelicans trailing 101-100, Williamson converted a layup over two Thunder defenders while getting fouled.

That And-1 led to an all-around final line of 23 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three blocks for Williamson, who also reached the important milestone of his 100th NBA game.

“He was patient,” Willie Green said. “He had moments where he knew he could get to the basket with his speed, his force, his quickness. Then he had moments where he kicked it out and trusted his teammates. That’s what our team is about. We had to dig down tonight with guys being out and pull out a win.”

Then it was Herb’s turn to close out the victory.

With the Pelicans up by two, Jones put the clamps on a Gilgeous-Alexander drive, drawing a charge, and then he iced the game with two free throw makes. However, it was how he got to the line that had everyone buzzing.

In postgame, Green said with a grin, “Herb’s living a little dangerously, but we’ll take it.”

Hey, the opportunity presented itself. The Pelicans were out of timeouts and Aleksej Pokusevski had turned his back to Jones inbounding the basketball. A player with Herb’s IQ, you trust his read every time.

In addition to his smart decision-making over the final few seconds, Jones was stellar throughout in finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, four steals and three blocks.

Although Gilgeous-Alexander totaled 31 points, Jones was the biggest reason why he missed 14 of 21 shot attempts and committed seven turnovers.

“I thought he was fantastic,” Willie Green said. “In his stance, contesting shots. I thought a couple of calls didn’t go our way when it came to Shai getting to the foul line, but Herb was outstanding. His defensive instincts are incredible. He guards the best guys every night and he does a fantastic job of doing it.”

The Pelicans, in general, did a great job of keeping OKC away from the rim and defending Gilgeous-Alexander. They outscored the Thunder 60-36 in the paint — OKC had entered as the league leader in points in the paint with 56.8 — and outside of several reaches, frustrated SGA often because New Orleans defenders did a great job of staying in front of him.

Next to Williamson, Trey Murphy (20 points, two 3s, six rebounds) and Jose Alvarado (15 points, four assists, three 3s) were the Pelicans most consistent offensive performers.

Thinking back to this time last year, that’s amazing to be able to write.

The Pelicans 2021 rookie class has grown so much over the last twelve months. While Jones received minutes right out of the gates, Alvarado and Murphy began much further behind. But they’ve caught up, so much so, this was the first time that the trio were in the starting lineup together — and they were well aware of this fact.

“It’s a testament to our work ethic and the want to do whatever our coaches need us to do,” Jones said. “But I told Jose when we were checking in, ‘It’s crazy. This is happening now.’ You see Trey grow into the player he’s become. Jose coming out, orchestrating the offense. It’s just amazing to see the work paying off now.”

Another player who has to be rising quickly up Green’s depth chart is Dyson Daniels. I thought he clearly outplayed Josh Giddey, his former NBA Global Academy teammate in Australia.

Daniels hit a couple of big 3s in the first half and then had a great steal of Gilgeous-Alexander on the defensive possession prior to Herb’s closing act. The 19-year-old rookie finished with eight points, five rebounds and two steals.

Jonas Valanciunas (eight points, ten rebounds) and Willy Hernangomez (10 points, nine rebounds) struggled somewhat against OKC’s smaller defenders, but there were also times they utilized their size well.

Traditional big men just have to be ultra patient when going up against opponents that stand six inches shorter and weigh 40-50 pounds less because the referees are always seemingly more ready to blow the whistle on behalf of smaller players.

Overall, this was a solid victory for the Pelicans. The Thunder have a legitimate star and a lot of talented guys around him. They had grabbed the momentum in the fourth quarter. New Orleans often lost games that followed a similar script in the past, but they carved out the win despite key teammates being out and never truly finding their rhythm.

With the victory, the Pelicans improve to 12-8 and are tied with the Grizzlies for third in the Western Conference standings. Up next, they’ll welcome the 11-9 Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

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.