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Williamson-Valanciunas frontcourt leads Pelicans to 117-99 victory over Spurs

Zion’s looked the part of an MVP over the past 3 games

Toronto Raptors v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Thanks to a 68-point outburst in the second half, the New Orleans Pelicans put away the San Antonio Spurs by a final score of 117-99, and in doing so, notched several notable achievements.

Before tonight, one had to go all the way back to the 2017-18 season to find the last time that the Pelicans won eight times in a ten-game stretch. However, everyone should remember that moment from over four years ago — New Orleans won 10 games in a row, tying their biggest winning streak in franchise history.

Perhaps just as impressive, the Pelicans had previously never beaten the Spurs twice on their home floor in the same regular season. After posting two victories in San Antonio over the last 10 days, New Orleans has finally shaken free from that dark cloud.

A lackluster first half resulted in a 52-49 deficit at halftime. The Pelicans shot only 35.7% from the field and 22.7% from 3-point range. They were also outscored 26-18 in paint after allowing the Spurs to get into the middle of the floor far too easily.

“I thought to start, when it was really the first half not just the game, we just eased into our plays,” Willie Green said. “We eased into it defensively and we gave them some momentum. Those are things that we talked about at halftime. We have to come out with a mindset and a sense of urgency no matter who we play. I thought in the second half we did a much better job of climbing into guys defensively, flying around, contesting shots, and then rebounding and going out running.”

At the center of the second-half turnaround was Zion Williamson, who spearheaded a monster Pelicans’ 18-4 run to end the third quarter.

The fourth-year man proceeded to close out the remaining 4:22 of the frame with 11 points (on perfect 4-for-4 shooting), two rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block. It was a near carbon-copy of his two-way brilliance witnessed several nights ago against the Raptors.

Williamson finished with the seventh 30-point double-double of his career — his second in as many games — for a line of 30 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block. He made 9 of 14 field goals and 12 of 13 from the free throw line.

“He’s just scratching the surface,” Green said. “He’s going to continue to get better. He’s seeing different coverages on the floor when he has the ball in his hands. Even when he’s off the ball, he’s just making plays for us. Over and over again, he’s making the right play.

“It’s just good to see him, when you look at the timeline of coming from an injury, knocking some rust off early in the season, and now he’s starting to find his rhythm.”

It’s scary to ponder that Zion may only be scratching the surface. His averages over the last three games are borderline absurd: 28.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.0 blocks. Oh, he’s also shooting 68.1% from the field and 84.6% from the line.

Opponents know Williamson’s strengths, but they’re often powerless to stop him. Trey Murphy gave us a great inside look at this debacle opposing teams face in his postgame interview.

“Dominant, dominant. I was on the free throw line and one of the guys on the Spurs was telling another guy like, ‘don’t let him go left.’ And the dude was like, ‘bruh, I’m trying. Dude, it ain’t that easy.’ I told him, ‘yeah, he’s a big dude. I’m sorry.’ That’s all I can say, I’m sorry, man.”

For all those who think it’s easy to game plan for Zion because he prefers to go left or attempt shots only near the rim, think again.

Williamson grabbing the bull by the horns inspired his teammates. Soon thereafter, Devonte’ Graham got a steal, Jose Alvarado knocked in a 3-ball — the Pelicans had been 5 for 29 from 3 up to this point, and then a Grand Theft Alvarado steal led two Naji Marshall free throws right before the third quarter buzzer.

Setting the tone also paved the way for big fourth quarters from Murphy, Alvarado and Marshall. Although he didn’t score, Zion handed out four very important assists. Three of them resulted in Murphy 3-pointers.

“It’s beautiful to watch,” Green said. “I’ll continue to reiterate it, but Zion, CJ and Brandon are all guys who will see multiple coverages. See double-teams at times. I thought Zion tonight did a good job of picking his spots. Times where he attacked offensively and then times he just got off the ball, Point-5, made a play for his teammates.”

Murphy finished with 17 points and five 3s, Alvarado had 15 points, five assists and three 3s, and Marshall tallied 15 points, five rebounds and two steals; however, their great finishing acts may have turned out very differently had Jonas Valanciunas not tormented the Spurs earlier.

San Antonio could not do anything to slow down New Orleans’ frontcourt tandem for the entire game. Zion registered a double-double in the second quarter. Jonas, in the third.

Like Williamson, Valanciunas punished Zach Collins and all other smaller defenders. He finished with a stellar line of 21 points, 11 rebounds and two assists. He made 8 of 11 from the field, 1 of 2 from 3-point range and went 4 for 4 from the free throw line.

“JV will have games when it’s his type of game,” Green said. “He’ll have some games when teams go small, so it’s a little tougher matchup-wise, but we’re figuring it out. As the season progresses, as we get healthy, we’ll continue to look at our team, look at our lineups. JV’s important. He brings a ton of value to our group. He’s a vet, he’s a pro. He’s always available.

“So we always want him to shoot a bit more. I talked to him before I came out here. I said, ‘Only two 3s?’ He apologized. He said he’ll try and do better, but he loves playing in the post. I thought he did a terrific job tonight.”

Green chuckled when recalling his conversation with JV to media, but don’t dismiss it.

Here’s an interesting factoid: When Valanciunas attempts at least one 3-pointer, the Pelicans are 13-4. When he fails to hoist up a single deep attempt, the team is 1-4.

I doubt this disparity remains as stark all season, but it does show how important it is for Valanciunas to hover around the perimeter often enough, and when he’s open, to keep defenses somewhat honest by launching a 3-ball or two.

In the first start of his career, Dyson Daniels had four points, five rebounds and three assists. Coming off a four-game absence, CJ McCollum also struggled with putting the ball through the hoop, scoring just five points on 11 shots.

The Pelicans bounced back nicely after a slow start to improve their record to 14-8. With both the Suns and Nuggets falling this Friday night, the race at the top of the Western Conference has tightened up even further. Only one game now separates the three teams — and the Pelicans are welcoming the Nuggets on Sunday in New Orleans.

Make plans to be there.

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.