Zion Williamson has the eighth-best odds of taking home the 2022-23 Most Valuable Player Award at 40-to-1, per BetOnline.
After watching the growing star score a career-high 43 points in leading the Pelicans to a thrilling 119-118 victory over the Timberwolves, the house should make him a stronger favorite. He did post this performance in a return from his bout with COVID after all.
“He’s a superstar, man,” Trey Murphy said. “Like I said on the radio interview, I think he’s the MVP of our league when you look at we’re one of the best teams in the West and he’s leading us. He put up 43 on 21 shots. He’s leading our team, scored the last 14 points if I’m not mistaken. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m just grateful to be his teammate.”
Everyone in the building knew exactly what was coming down the stretch. However, Rudy Gobert and the rest of the Timberwolves were unable to curb the unstoppable force.
Williamson set the tone right out of halftime, tallying 19 points in the third quarter. He drove relentlessly to the rim, often finding success. He proceeded to then score the final 14 points of the game for the Pelicans, fouling out the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in the process.
Sure, there were a lot of whistles, with the vast majority of them occurring in the second half. The teams combined for 75 free throw attempts. Williamson shot 19 of them. But for as often as opponents take liberties with trying to slow him down — and the Timberwolves certainly bumped, hit, slapped and discouraged him in every conceivable way possible, 19 might have not been enough.
Writing any further about the unevenness of the calls between the two halves, though, would take away from the spirited battle that saw two teams who didn’t want to lose.
For much of the evening, the Pelicans had no answers for Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, both of whom scored 27 points each. Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid were excellent in support of their Minnesota teammates.
Honestly, it’s a little mystifying to see these Wolves sitting three games below .500. They seem to have the weapons and showed a nice ability to scrap. Chris Finch had his Minnesota squad ready for this matchup.
Of course, they didn’t have him fighting on their behalf.
Williamson wasn’t going to be deterred on this Wednesday, especially after CJ McCollum pushed the right button.
“I watch a lot of old school players,” Williamson said. “I like to figure out their mindsets and all their mindsets were the same. People remember winners. Whenever that time comes for me to be done with the game of basketball, I want people to say that he was a winner. CJ looked and said to me, ‘You want to be great? It’s time to step up.’ That’s all the motivation I needed.”
Amid the usual forays into the paint that resulted in gobs of points, Williamson also connected on his lone 3-point attempt, cutting the New Orleans deficit to just a bucket with a little over two minutes remaining.
“I was going to shoot it, regardless,” Williamson said. “That open? I was in rhythm, but shout-out to Trey for that. It was a big 3 in the game.”
His steal of a Russell pass intended for McDaniels might have been bigger.
GET OUT OF THIS MAN'S WAY!!— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 29, 2022
Career high 42 points for Zion!! pic.twitter.com/NcmPSooRGi
“It’s a really gutsy type of play because it’s really bang-bang,” Murphy said. “If you miss the steal, then they come down and have an advantage. But him being the guy that he’s projected to be and the guy he is now, superstars and people like that make those plays and fuel our team. We didn’t look back after that.”
The Pelicans didn’t look back, though a tough Dyson Daniels contest on an Edwards fadeaway at the final buzzer was required.
Williamson was doused with water not minutes later during his Bally Sports New Orleans interview — but a special shout-out to the quick-thinking Devonte’ Graham for whisking Jen Hale away to safety before that celebration began.
In addition to his words of wisdom, McCollum finished with 20 points and six assists. His five points to begin the fourth quarter with Williamson resting were absolutely crucial.
“I’ve been playing this game a long time,” McCollum said. “You see the moments. You understand the importance of certain possessions. At the fourth quarter start, I tried to be a little bit more aggressive and get us back into it. Tried to take the lead, knowing that Z’s going to be coming back in and batting cleanup ...
“He knows he’s a very good basketball player. I think you guys all know that, but sometimes it helps to hear it from your teammates, the encouragement. To understand the work you put in is going to show. It’s going to pay off and you’ve got to go do it ...
“I’m not going to take credit for him. He’s out here doing what he’s supposed to with his body, doing what he’s supposed to do in games. I’m just here to encourage him and try and put him in the best positions to succeed.”
Williamson received additional aid that put him in position to be the hero.
Trey Murphy was lethal from the outside, knocking down five 3-pointers en route to 21 points. Jaxson Hayes’ first 3-pointer of the season couldn’t have been timed better. And Jonas Valanciunas (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Naji Marshall (12 points, seven rebounds) provided plenty of fight.
This Jonas Valančiūnas stare down pic.twitter.com/zGpzMLcyK9— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 29, 2022
The Pelicans didn’t play their best brand of basketball, but that happens multiple times over the course of a season. The important thing is, finding a way to win when games turn into a slog.
“Ugly game, but you’ve got to be able to win ugly games,” McCollum said. “I think that’s a sign of growth. I think we probably would have lost this game last year — get off to a bad start, get down eight or nine points, not getting stops. I think that’s the sign of a good team, being able to figure out ways to win ugly games.”
W’s count all the same, and right now, the Pelicans are streaking again. That’s four consecutive wins, which moves them to 10 games above .500 again. More importantly, this win combined with a Nuggets loss to the Kings has New Orleans and Denver tied atop the Western Conference standings.
Thank you, Z, soon-to-be MVP frontrunner, if certain positive trends continue.