EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Zion Williamson steps up to moment, Suns lose crucial game to Pelicans

Apr 7, 2024, 7:38 PM

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (Jeremy Schnell/...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — It is rare to see a player step up in a must-win situation to a degree when it feels like they are not going to let their team lose.

That’s what Zion Williamson did for the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday in a 113-105 Phoenix Suns loss that had massive implications on the race to avoid the play-in tournament.

“I think they just kind of wanted it a little bit more than we did,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said. “They played with a sense of [despair], not in a negative way. They really wanted to get the win tonight and kind of turn their season around and we had a chance to really kind of set ourselves up for staying out of the play-in with a win.”

Williamson provided 29 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, career-high five blocks and four turnovers in 40 minutes. After being a complete no-show for Phoenix’s win in New Orleans on Monday, he responded emphatically.

“It was one of the best games I’ve seen him play,” Pelicans head coach Willie Green said of Williamson. “Especially with where he is in terms of playing as many games as he’s played, that’s an accomplishment and we’re extremely proud of him.”

The Suns were greeted with a playoff atmosphere in a tightly contested fourth quarter for the first time in weeks. That will naturally produce skepticism about their chances given the team’s weaknesses this season but they were there for the moment. Beal tallied 10 straight Suns points to open the quarter and tie the game at 93.

That’s when Williamson checked in and completely took over, amassing a one-quarter highlight reel that will rival any other outburst from this season.

He knocked down two free throws, blocked a Grayson Allen 3, scored at the rim and swatted a Beal shot before finishing at the basket again.

And then arrived the stretch when he really got started.

With the Pelicans back up one and under six minutes left, Allen, Kevin Durant and Allen again all missed shots on the same possession. The open 3s for Allen were particularly back-breaking.

Williamson scored nine seconds later on another pull-up jumper, the shot that will make him unstoppable if he can build off Sunday.

Out of a Suns timeout, they attacked Williamson with Kevin Durant, getting Durant space downhill away from a recovering Williamson. Williamson has been a tremendously inconsistent defender over his career, often becoming a target of opposing gameplans.

“I could tell the other team would try to hunt me on defense and I’m watching the film and I didn’t like that,” Williamson said.

That Williamson was nowhere in sight on Sunday. He fully recovered on that play to protect the rim once again.

Traded baskets were followed by another good look for Allen from 3, another he would fail to convert on.

New Orleans called a timeout there, sensing the wheels loosening and drew up an easy two by getting Jusuf Nurkic switched onto Williamson to put it ahead six.

Beal then took his turn at Williamson, stepping on the baseline for a turnover after Williamson denied him any room.

The Pelicans clanked a 3 and Devin Booker quickly got a bucket inside before Williamson made his way to a loose ball that found C.J. McCollum for a floater that would prove to be the dagger with 1:41 remaining. Williamson added one more at 29 seconds remaining by scoring through three defenders.

Sunday was undoubtedly the biggest game of the regular season for both teams, which should further highlight Williamson’s urgency.

To start, the Dallas Mavericks won again on Sunday to move to 48-30 in the No. 5 spot of the Western Conference standings. They own head-to-head tiebreakers over both the Suns (46-32) and Pelicans (46-32), so the losing team in Phoenix would have to make up either three or four games in their final four to catch Dallas, an incredibly unlikely outcome considering Dallas’ finish includes matchups with Charlotte and Detroit. The fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers were also victorious to be 50-28, almost certainly now out of reach for both sides.

So, the matchup would dramatically influence the battle between the two sides fighting for the last guaranteed playoff spot. It mattered especially for the Pelicans, who lost the tiebreaker in Monday’s Suns win, thus essentially trailing Phoenix by three games with four to go if they were to lose again on Sunday.

Williamson responded to those stakes by putting forth a special two-way flurry up there with any overall performance in Footprint Center this year.

“People remember the greats because of key moments, whether it’s in the playoffs or a key regular season win, people remember moments,” he said. “If I want to be one of those players, I gotta make it happen in those moments.”

Phoenix shouldn’t be discouraged by the loss. It was one of those Allen 3s or missed dunks from Beal and Durant away from winning this one, and it also got an awesome outing from Beal. He shot 13-of-19 for 33 points with five assists, two blocks and three turnovers.

Beal flashing the capability to still reach an elite level when Booker or Durant can’t is a big-time development, something that felt like too much to ask out of him given the overhauled nature of his role.

A storyline coming in was how New Orleans could stop Booker, who dropped 52 points in each of the two previous meetings. All-Defense candidate Herb Jones started on Booker but couldn’t keep him too close. All-Nuisance candidate Jose Alvarado then checked in after missing Monday’s matchup and was a difference-maker, staying attached to Booker all over the floor in his usual pest ways while drilling five 3s in the game. This allowed Jones to spend more time on Durant and he was able to affect Durant’s rhythm as well.

Both were relatively kept in check. Booker’s 25 points (9-of-16) and Durant’s 23 (9-of-22) were not of the caliber we’ve seen across the last week.

In the early-going, after Phoenix continued to contain space Williamson was looking for, New Orleans ditched a center being out there for nearly half of the first two quarters and didn’t play Jonas Valanciunas in the second half. This immediately gave Williamson more room and opened up the Pelicans’ shooters in a way they couldn’t in the other contests. Backup 5 Larry Nance Jr. was huge in those efforts with nine points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel did not counter with any of his own small-ball lineups, stating postgame he wanted a presence around the rim for Williamson. He noted how the Suns’ terrific defensive discipline with filling space from Friday’s win was not the same, allowing that smaller New Orleans lineup to run good offense.

New Orleans was completely revitalized by these changes and ended the first half on a 32-14 run thanks to 8-of-13 shooting from 3 in the second quarter to lead by six at halftime after an awful first period full of turnovers. McCollum was the opener for Williamson, generating 29 of his 31 points in the first three quarters. Vogel did not think Phoenix had enough reactive urgency finding Alvarado and McCollum once the duo got going.

“We didn’t guard the 3,” Vogel said of that stretch. “They made eight 3s and that’s the modern NBA. … I don’t wanna say it was a knockout punch but it certainly swung the game.”

“I think they did a good job of adjusting,” Beal said of New Orleans. “I think that was the biggest thing.”

It is a borderline requirement for Nurkic to play well when teams go small and he really struggled in his usual problem areas of finishing around the rim and giveaways. He managed to impact the game more in the second half to end up with six points (2-for-7), 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, a block and three turnovers. But these are the types of matchups that would give the Suns problems in the postseason, both because of center play and the unwillingness to go small when it’s not a last resort.

A playoff feel arrived in the third quarter, aided by New Orleans’ team-wide effort to bother Booker. Jones got two quick fouls in his attempt before Dyson Daniels and Alvarado took turns. Alvarado and Nance picked up back-to-back fouls before a possession had even developed for getting even more physical with Booker. Head coach Willie Green called his team soft after Monday’s loss for its mentality with Booker and his message was received.

Daniels even tossed in a meaningless shove after Williamson drew an offensive foul on Booker, activating a response from Booker and another kerfuffle from these two sides that have rivalry lore dating back three seasons.

 

The loss doesn’t doom the Suns. They still control their own destiny. But any slip up, even one, could mean the play-in tournament. It’s not just the Pelicans. The Los Angeles Lakers are in action on Sunday night at 45-33 and in possession of the tiebreaker against both teams.

It should be quite the climactic last week of the regular season.

Empire of the Suns

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