The New Orleans Pelicans did just fine without Zion Williamson against the Denver Nuggets.
Now the Pelicans will try to complete a sweep of the season series with the No. 1 overall draft choice in the lineup when they face the visiting Nuggets on Friday night.
The Pelicans got their first victory of the season when they beat the Nuggets 122-107 on Halloween, then beat them 112-100 on Christmas in Denver.
The third and final meeting won’t take place on a holiday, but it will take place just two days after New Orleans celebrated Williamson’s long-awaited NBA debut despite a 121-117 home defeat against San Antonio.
After missing the season’s first 44 games because of arthroscopic knee surgery, Williamson started and scored 22 points, including 17 straight New Orleans points midway through the fourth quarter.
“It was good to get back out there, obviously, but I didn’t have the outcome that I wanted,” Williamson said, who played 21 minutes.
He helped the Pelicans briefly gain a one-point lead before the Spurs went back on top, and he went to the bench with 5:33 remaining. He didn’t return on the advice of the team’s medical staff, which didn’t want to push him beyond the 18-plus minutes he already had played.
“I’m 19 and in that moment I’m not thinking about longevity,” Williamson said. “I’m thinking about winning that game so it was very tough.”
Williamson made eight of 11 field goals, including all four of his 3-pointers. He added seven rebounds, three assists and five turnovers.
“For him to be able to come out here and do that in his first game is pretty elite,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said.
Williamson struggled for the first three quarters before taking over the game by scoring 17 points in a stretch of three minutes and eight seconds.
“I think the big thing is that he was much more aggressive during that situation,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I thought he was just deferring way too much. I wanted him to be aggressive, and I knew that he would make some mistakes, but I think what you saw there is a taste of once we really get settled in and he gets settled in, you can see that there’s a lot of things we can do with him.”
Gentry said after practice Thursday that Williamson experienced no ill effects from putting his knee through an NBA game for the first time.
New Orleans has endured a series of injuries in addition to Williamson’s and the Nuggets are dealing with a few injuries as well.
Denver was missing five players, including three starters, in a 121-105 loss at Houston on Wednesday.
Guard Jamal Murray (ankle) missed his fourth straight game. Forward Paul Millsap (knee) missed his ninth consecutive game. Guard Gary Harris (adductor) missed his sixth consecutive game. Forward Michael Porter Jr. (back tightness) and center Mason Plumlee (foot) were also sidelined.
“We missed bodies, but that’s not an excuse,” said center Nikola Jokic, who had his eighth triple-double of the season with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. “We need to do a better job of rebounding. I need to do a better job of throwing the ball around, not having turnovers, just to lead the team a little bit better.”
The Nuggets were outrebounded 53-40 and gave up 18 offensive rebounds.
“To me, that’s the one area, I don’t care who’s available, that has nothing to do with talent,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “The guys that are shooting up and being called upon to play can go out there and rebound the basketball.”
–Field Level Media