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Pelicans show toughness in 104-98 victory over Pistons, move into first in Western Conference

Teams are displaying greater physicality in trying to slow Zion. Naji’s already had enough.

Detroit Pistons v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The momentum moved significantly in New Orleans’ favor following a particular incident on the court, but then the wind was nearly knocked out of their sails from another soon thereafter.

The Pelicans prevailed over the Pistons, 104-98, but it was somewhat of an emotional roller coaster ride. By night’s end, though, they found themselves atop the Western Conference standings despite the loss of a key warrior.

Credit the Pistons, they didn’t arrive in New Orleans and roll over. They’re enduring a losing season and were without Cade Cunningham; however, Detroit still gave the Pelicans everything they could handle.

The first quarter was nearly played to a draw. The second started down the same path, but then Zion Williamson was wrapped up by Alec Burks and wound up getting flung to the floor.

With the Pelican superstar laying on the ground, Marshall went into the scrum looking to send a message, rushing to his teammate’s side and pushing Burks and Jalen Duren away from the immediate area.

“If guys are out there trying to be physical, and I won’t say illegal but not the best play, he’s going to stick up for his teammates and that’s what we’re about,” Willie Green said. “We cover for each other. We’re not out there trying to hurt anybody, but we’re not going to stand for people coming on our home floor or on the road, and brining a level of physicality to us. We want to take it to teams. We’re all with Naji on that now.”

Opponents have felt the wrath of Williamson of late and they’ve been powerless to slow him down within the scope of the rules. Consequently, it appears they’re now trying to be even more physical with him, perhaps as a show of intimidation, and not allow him to get to the rim at any cost.

Take, for instance, the Pelicans’ 121-106 victory over the Nuggets. When Zion dribbled past Deandre Jordan, the Denver center wrapped up Williamson from behind in an identical manner.

While neither act in the span of a few days looks overly malicious on its face, those are not plays on the ball. Moreover, when considering Williamson’s ability to generate an incredible amount of force, a sudden change in direction or stopping his momentum altogether could result in an ugly injury.

That’s why Marshall’s approach should be cheered, and he tried to explain it to the referees after picking up a technical foul.

“I’d do that for anybody,” Marshall said. “Those guys are my brothers. I see them day in and day out. Just like I wouldn’t let anything happen to me, I wouldn’t let anything happen to them. If I was on a different team, it would be the same way for the other players. I’m just being loyal.”

Zion, obviously, greatly appreciated the gesture.

“That’s my dog,” Williamson said. “That’s what great teammates do. That’s when you really know somebody special in your corner. He didn’t have to do that, but he did just because he’s my brother. He’s a great person to have in my corner.”

While Williamson went on to have two successive turnovers before sitting for a rest, the tone was set because when he returned, he returned with a vengeance.

Zion accounted for all 10 of New Orleans’ points over the remaining 2:58 of the first half, scoring seven points and assisting Trey Murphy on a 3-pointer to give New Orleans a comfortable 56-43 lead at halftime.

The Pelicans continued to maintain a double-digit through the third quarter, but then potential tragedy struck.

Jose Alvarado was chasing Killian Hayes around a Duren screen and he took a hard shot to the ribs. He immediately winced in pain and fell to the ground.

Teammates rushed to his side and the Smoothie King Center was suddenly eerily quiet.

Fortunately, x-rays came back negative and Alvarado later appeared on the bench with a wrap around his chest.

“Thank God he’s OK, nothing serious from what I was told,” Green said. “We need him. He’s having such a great season, we don’t want anything to derail that. We’ll continue to monitor him the next few days and see how he is.”

One would assume that bruised ribs would curb a person’s enthusiasm and excessive movement, but Jose cheered on his teammates vociferously. He implored Zion to propel the Pelicans to a victory. He even got in the face of Naji entering a timeout after the forward had passed on a 3-point attempt.

The Pelicans’ fight, though, shined in the fourth quarter. Marshall, Murphy, Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas all took turns carrying an offense that was largely limited to the paint.

With the 3-point shot not falling (29.6% 3PT%), and New Orleans committing six more turnovers, the Pelicans thankfully were able to dominate the lane. They outscored the Pistons by a whooping 34 points in the paint (62-28).

Zion Williamson finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, making it the fourth time in the last seven games that he’s posted a double-double with at least 29 points. As for what he thinks of team’s being more physical with him, he began preparing for these moments long ago.

“I grew up playing on a court called McLeod Park in Florence, South Carolina. All the adults tell you there that it’s where boys are turned in to men. You don’t call fouls. You just kind of play through it, and I think that’s what allows me to get a lot of and-ones and finish through contact. If you called a foul out there, you were labeled soft. Those experiences from when I was younger really helped me keep my head cool to this day.”

Trey Murphy had 20 points, five rebounds and five assists, Jonas Valanciunas had 14 points and 12 rebounds, Naji Marshall supplied 17 points, five rebounds and two blocks off the bench.

The Pelicans’ victory over the Pistons marks the team’s fifth straight. They had previously won five consecutive contests to close out the 2017-18 campaign.

More importantly, coupled with the Celtics demolishing the Suns, the Pelicans now sit in first place in the Western Conference for the first time since April 11, 2008.

In less than 48 hours, the Pelicans will host the Suns in what’ll be the first of three meetings over the next nine days. New Orleans fans would surely like nothing more than to hand Phoenix three L’s after getting bounced by the Suns from last season’s playoffs.

Let’s Geaux!!

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