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Zion Williamson owes zero apologies for powering Pelicans to 128-117 victory over Suns

Chris Paul was up to his usual tricks

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

If the cat wasn’t out of the bag, it should be now.

“Zion Williamson, MVP,” Jose Alvarado said as he deadpanned into the video camera. “He’s playing at an MVP-everything right now. He’s just being a great leader, coming in and showing that. He heard all that talk when he was sitting down and he’s {now} competing.”

Twenty-five games in, it’s evident that the New Orleans Pelicans are going to be a major force to be reckoned with in the NBA playoff picture. National media also needs to take note of Zion Williamson’s burgeoning campaign for the 2023 Most Valuable Player Award more seriously.

With their 128-117 victory over the Phoenix Suns Friday night, the Pelicans won their sixth game in a row to remain in first place in the Western Conference, Williamson was, once again, special, scoring a season-high 35 points. He also added seven rebounds, four assists and a steal.

Williamson’s efficiency stood out, especially when the lights were brightest. He was flawless in the fourth quarter, connecting on all four shot attempts, and made 13 of 17 field goals and 9 of 12 from the free throw line overall.

Zion’s dominance was obvious, as reflected by his +30 plus-minus in an 11-point win; however, all onlookers will most likely remember the 360 dunk with 1.9 seconds left in regulation.

As the final buzzer sounded, a large-sized scrum ensued at half court. Not only did both benches empty, but coaches, team staffers and others joined the fray.

“I don’t know what caused the stir,” Willie Green said. “I do know that when you get two teams that are competing the way we compete. I know Monty, Monty knows me — two coaches who believe playing hard every single play — that kind of stuff, it happens. We don’t want it to happen. We don’t want guys out there scuffling or what have you — and it didn’t get to that point — but it’s just a part of the game.”

No punches were thrown, but it appeared that a few on the Suns had taken offense to the Pelicans closing out the game with several dunks inside the final 20 seconds.

“The game was pretty much over and they just kept playing,” Cam Payne said. “I felt like there was just no sportsmanship and we don’t really like that. We do the right thing. I felt like they should’ve done the right thing and they didn’t. We didn’t take it well and we don’t like to lose either. The game was over, no shot clock, they can hold the ball.”

This take is comical because Chris Paul instigated the entire affair. He goaded the Pelicans into adding more points to their total because he kept on shooting.

In a six-point game, CP3 missed a 3-pointer with 24.3 seconds left, and it looked like he tried to draw a shooting foul on Alvarado but failed. CJ McCollum then smartly passed it ahead to a wide-open Larry Nance Jr. for a transition flush to put the game to bed.

Phoenix didn’t remotely run back defensively during the play, almost as though they were resigned to a loss. Or so one would have thought. Paul wound up trying to have the last say even though his team trailed by eight points and the shot clock was off.

Maybe it was because Williamson was guarding him and the competitive juices kicked in, or maybe he was still playing mind tricks to the bitter end, but the Suns starting point guard drove and missed a layup with about nine seconds left.

Nance, who was cognizant of a potential 8-second violation, flipped the ball ahead to Williamson, who was streaking free up the floor.

At this point, yes, Zion could have shut down the engines. But then again, CP3, a grizzled veteran who definitely knows better, had just tried to show up Williamson and his teammates on their floor.

No, Williamson made the correct decision in finishing the game with a mammoth highlight at the expense of the Suns.

The Blender is Pelicans territory. Opponents are not allowed to get the last laugh, especially those involved in a brewing rivalry. It was also A+ entertainment for paying SKC fans. And later, we learned that there were several other good reasons too.

“That was a little out of character for me,” Williamson said. “But you’ve got to understand — you can understand it or not — they sent my teammates home last year. I missed all of last year. I got carried away a little bit. I admit that. But I was in that locker room when my brothers were down because the Suns sent us home last year. That’s a tough moment to be a part of. So at that moment, I got carried away and I admit that. It was out of character for me. If they were to do the same thing, I wouldn’t have any problem with it.”

Williamson went on to say that his mother and step father had raised him to be more thoughtful in these moments, but the energy inside the building was so infectious that anyone would have gotten caught up in it. And let’s face facts, the Pelicans are still in the process of putting themselves on the map — similar to what the Grizzlies did in the previous two years in my opinion.

“It wasn’t the dunk itself at all because had I kept it in the backcourt, I would have got an 8-second violation,” Nance said. “We’ll just call it an audition for the dunk contest. If I could do it, I would’ve too. It’s a big home court win, and to really stamp first place in the West, it’s just big emotion.”

CJ McCollum understood Williamson’s actions as well.

“I think him sitting last season and seeing how we were playing, especially after the trade, and we went to the playoffs, he was relishing the opportunity to be out there. To be able to play in big moments in meaningful games. He’s delivering and playing like an MVP.”

But, honestly, McCollum nailed how the Suns should have reacted during the final 20 seconds: “They’ve got to get back on defense if they don’t want us to dunk the ball.”

No lies told here. Don’t want to give up a dunk? Then go defend for the full 48 minutes. Admittedly, though, none of the theatrics over the final minute would have probably occurred were it not for the Suns explosive perimeter shooting down the stretch.

Phoenix knocked down their first eight 3-point attempts of the fourth quarter, turning a 13-point deficit into a one-point lead. However, the Pelicans responded to this barrage, and the 22 made 3s overall, by consistently destroying the Suns in the paint.

New Orleans outscored Phoenix by a wide 72-38 margin in the lane, and additionally, got to the free throw line 22 more times. That offset a spectacular display of shooting by several Suns. Torey Craig and Damian Lee each hit four 3s. But it was Pauls 6 for 9 shooting from deep that stood out the most.

CP3 just loves torturing the Pelicans. It can’t be denied any longer. In a performance that reminded New Orleans fans of his marksmanship too well, Paul scored 24 points. His previous season-high was 16 points.

After watching their first-round playoff series last season, though, we should have expected tension at the finish line.

“Chris and Jose got their own little game going on,” Nance said. “Both teams kind of rally around those guys. Obviously, Chris is their vet, and one of their leaders, and Jose is the heart and soul of this team. So when you see those two getting into it, you’re going to get both benches, and coaches, and front offices, and fans. You’re going to get everybody. I just think it was one of those things. You’ve got a lot of high-level, high testosterone athletes out there.”

Next to Williamson, Jose Alvarado was the most spectacular player for New Orleans. When he entered, the Pelicans trailed 23-14. Then just as he did against the Nuggets, he flipped the game’s momentum singlehandedly.

Alvarado finished with 20 points, three triples and three steals, but what’s more astounding was the toughness he exuded because his rib injury still clearly bothered him. He winced multiple times on the court, yet he kept on battling, like the warrior that he is.

“My uncle always told me, you’re tougher than you think,” Alvarado said. “So that’s my mindset. If I’m going to go out there, you’re not injured. If you’re going to half-ass it, then you need to sit out. If I suit up, there’s nothing wrong with me.”

Alvarado is just cut from a different cloth. He told media that he wasn’t going to sit Friday, especially with Chris Paul playing. Furthermore, he expects for the disdain to linger, at least until the Pelicans knock the Suns out of the playoffs, or they’re at home watching New Orleans make postseason waves.

“Yeah, there’s tension there all the time,” Alvarado said. “We hated it that they beat us on our home floor to lose a playoff game. Every game playing them is going to be physical, really locked in. I guess it’s always going to be a playoff game for us because we’re never going to let that game go until we eliminate them in the playoffs or until we’re in the playoffs winning and they’re sitting at home.”

In keeping with the theme that the Pelicans have the best depth in the league, Alvarado was flanked by great performances from Nance (17 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals) and Naji Marshall (14 points, four assists, two 3s).

Devonte’ Graham also provided a nice spark on both ends, but it was really good to see McCollum finally break through another recent slump, posting 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He had a lot of important buckets in the second half.

There’s only one thing that’s left to be said: Sunday’s rematch between these two teams is going to be epic.

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.