The atmosphere was special again in the 129-124 victory as New Orleans faithful filled the Smoothie King to capacity on Sunday. That’s right, the game was an official sell-out.
“I thought the last two games were high level,” Willie Green said. “That team over there, that’s a good team. I know all of those guys. I know what they’re about. They play hard, they’re well-coached and disciplined, and for us to take them on our home floor and win these two games is huge for our program.”
Once more, Zion Williamson was the biggest difference-maker. This despite Monty Williams’ best efforts to stymie his numbers. Deandre Ayton defended Williamson during the vast majority of his minutes, and other Suns helped often, but Zion still did as he pleased.
Williamson matched his point production from Friday’s game, scoring 35 points, while adding eight rebounds, three assists and a steal. He also knocked down several 3-pointers after splashing a turnaround midrange jumper.
“I see the work that he puts in behind the scenes,” CJ McCollum said. “I’m like Z, ‘you’ve got to shoot that jumper.” And tonight, he shot a couple. I think he went 2 for 3 from three. He had a chance to win it with a pull-up and he hit another pull-up earlier in the game. His greatness is what it is, right, but for him to take that next step, especially when the playoffs start and to keep the defense honest — and he’s got nice form — keep them honest and shoot a few jumpers. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to. I’m proud of him.”
It’s safe to say that all of New Orleans is proud of Zion because it’s become commonplace to hear chants of “MVP, MVP, MVP” down the stretch of games. His production has been absurdly good over the team’s seven-game winning streak.
Believe the 42:11 is the most Zion's played in a game in his career.— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) December 11, 2022
His averages during the 7-game winning streak:
- 30.0 points
- 9.1 rebounds
- 5.3 assists
- 1.6 steals
- 1.1 blocks
- 66.9 FG%
- 74.6 FT% on 9.6 FTA
As it’s become a theme this season, one player didn’t carry a cumbersome load.
CJ McCollum broke through in a big way, scoring 29 points and dishing out seven assists. While CJ noted in postgame that he needs to hit more of his good 3-point looks, stating that the shot was a little flat at times, he was an effective threat overall.
“Number one, he’s getting healthy and that’s the biggest part for CJ,” Green said. “He just took some time for him to kind of get his legs under him, but he had a terrific game tonight: shooting the ball well, getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line — all of the things that when we acquired CJ last season that he was doing right away. So it was good to see him have a CJ-like game.”
McCollum’s legs looked stronger, as he told media he felt good coming off a good weight lifting session. A first-quarter tip-in over several Suns players served as the first example, but everyone was overjoyed by McCollum catching a pass from Williamson on a fast break and stuffing it home with two hands.
If McCollum figures out a way to avoid viruses for the rest of the season, we should continue to see the usual reliability on a much more consistent basis. And when Brandon Ingram gets back in the fold, it’s not difficult to envision Zion, BI and CJ grabbing the mantle of the league’s most potent scoring trio.
The role players, which includes the best bench around, also rose to the occasion.
Dyson Daniels, who was incredibly effective in slowing Devin Booker on Friday, was outstanding against Chris Paul. He helped limit CP3 to just six points on 3 of 10 shooting from the field, and added 11 points and eight assists on the other end of the floor.
“His defensive instincts are incredible,” Green said. “I told him in the locker room that he was huge for us tonight in this win. His ability to guard, his rebounding ability, he was aggressive on the offensive end and then he just made plays for his teammates. Those are things we know he can do and he’s just gaining more confidence as he plays.”
Daniels briefly left the floor at the 5:37 mark of the fourth quarter after knocking knees with Jock Landale, but he returned for the final minute to help close out the victory.
My favorite performance of the night was turned in by Larry Nance Jr. He was outstanding, as evidenced by a line of 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks. He knocked down a trey and connected on six of seven field goals.
“He’s a Swiss Army knife,” Green said. “Larry can do a bit of everything. He can shoot the ball. He can play-make from the perimeter, from the post. He can guard multiple positions. He’s a really good rebounder. Just high IQ on the floor. Larry was phenomenal. We had some overtime games that just didn’t go our way. It was good to get one tonight on our home floor.”
The Pelicans had previously lost all their overtime games, so the head coach was correct about the team finally getting a win in extra time. They improved to 8-3 in clutch minutes on the season.
We also learned from Green that if Nance is a Swiss Army knife, then Naji Marshall should be considered a knife.
“Naji is just a knife,” Green said. “He comes in the game and he’s cutting everybody. No, Naji’s been great. I’ve said it before, he’s just one of our guys that has earned everything that he’s gotten. From the start of summer league all the way up to now, Naji’s just working. He’s doing a great job with Coach Corey Brewer, watching film, in the gym.”
Marshall was simply fantastic against contact in scoring 16 points, dishing five assists and grabbing five rebounds. He missed only two of eight shot attempts and one free throw attempt. The manner in how he accumulated his stats made Green’s analogy to a knife so appropriate.
- His first bucket came on a drive in which he was fouled and the shot clock was winding down
- His next field goal came on putback after prying a rebound out of Ayton’s hands
- His final bucket was powerful finish through the chest of Landale at the rim
“It’s great to see these young guys continue to grow,” Green said. “We have a long way to go, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but we like to celebrate small victories and this is one for us: The win streak, taking care of home court, beating a team that we all respect.”
On Friday, the Suns threw a barrage of punches late in the form of 3-point makes. On this Sunday afternoon, they more than made up for their paint deficiencies from the previous game by nearly matching the Pelicans in points in the paint and dominating the offensive glass (19-7) and second chance points (21-7).
All of this is to say, Phoenix fights as hard as any opponent any given night. But the Pelicans withstood all salvos, so they have a right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished to date.
“We’re No. 1 in the West right now,” Williamson said. “I know to a lot of people that’s not a big deal, because it’s early in the season, but for us to have that ranking right now, it’s big. We not only want to hold onto it, we want to build on it. We have a deep team, and we all have a special bond, so everybody is happy to see each other do well.”
The Pelicans sit atop the Western Conference with an 18-8 record. They’ve never enjoyed a stronger winning percentage through the first 26 games in franchise history. Zion absolutely looks the part of an MVP and New Orleans’ bench has been just as crucial to all the success.
Next to the Boston Celtics, is there a more formidable team than the Pelicans at the moment? The answer seems as clear as a bell.