Zion Williamson Drops Career-High 32 as Pelicans Fall to Chris Paul, Thunder

Blake SchusterContributor IIIFebruary 14, 2020

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson grabs a rebound during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in New Orleans, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder avoided their second three-game losing streak of the season on Thursday with a 123-118 victory on the road against the New Orleans Pelicans

The win provides a bit of relief for a Thunder team now heading into the All-Star break on a positive note. The Pelicans, meanwhile, had a three-game win streak snapped and will enter the break squarely in the playoff race but with plenty of work to do down the stretch. 

Oklahoma City (33-22) is clinging to the seventh seed in the Western Conference, which made Thursday's game a much-needed one for a New Orleans team five games back of Memphis for the eighth seed. Instead, the 11th-place Pelicans (23-32) drop to nine games under .500. 

Pelicans small forward Brandon Ingram did not return to the court, missing his third straight game with an ankle injury after being designated a game-time decision earlier on Thursday. Ingram was selected to the All-Star Game and is on Team Giannis for Sunday's exhibition. Zion Williamson is scheduled to take part in the Rising Stars Game, while Chris Paul is the only OKC player who was voted to the All-Star Game. 

        

Notable Performers

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  • Zion Williamson, F, Pelicans: 32 points, six rebounds, one assist
  • Jrue Holiday, G, Pelicans: 14 points, 11 assists, six rebounds
  • Chris Paul, G, Thunder: 14 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds
  • Steven Adams, C, Thunder: 11 points, 11 rebounds

Zion Continues Producing for Pels 

After Williamson's unforgettable debut nine games ago, Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday grabbed the mic to declare this was the rookie's new normal. 

"The way he played is something he can do every day," Holiday said after Williamson scored 22 points in limited action during his first NBA game. He continues to be proven right. 

For the fourth time in 10 games, Williamson has set a new career high in points, pouring in 32 on Thursday against the Thunder.

The Duke product only made one shot outside three feet on the night, but that hardly mattered in terms of his offensive rhythm. The rookie showed he could take on a veteran post player in Steven Adams and worked around him to get the shots he desired. He was 11-of-19 from the field with three offensive rebounds.

It's a testament to Williamson's ability to create off the dribble and in the post, considering the Thunder practically dared him to break out his jump shot Thursday.

Williamson certainly has the confidence to take those shots, but he's struggled to sink them. Three of his misses against OKC came from outside the paint, and since catching fire in his debut and nailing four three-pointers, he hasn't been able to connect from beyond the arc, going 0-of-7 during his cold stretch. 

New Orleans will likely give him a break there. The forward has been his team's leading scorer in four of his first 10 games and has become even more important as Ingram works his way back from an ankle injury.

Simply put, teams know Williamson is going to cause havoc in the paint, and they still don't have an answer for him. It may be a while before anyone does. 

     

OKC Tightens Playoff Grip

The two-game slide the Thunder endured wasn't quite cause for panic. There's no shame in losing a close contest to the Boston Celtics at home. Losing to the San Antonio Spurs, however, is a bit more of an issue. 

A third straight loss against a potential playoff team in New Orleans would've been even tougher to accept. No matter, the Thunder avoided any such panic and took care of business to strengthen their hold on a playoff spot in the West. 

With Thursday's victory, OKC is now tied with the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth seed, one-and-a-half games back of the Houston Rockets for the fifth seed. A little breathing room can go a long way in the NBA and make moments like Adams' first career three-pointer a bit easier to enjoy. 

Instead of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies gaining a game in the standings, they're now 4.5 games back of OKC, though they have taken a four-game lead on the ninth-place Portland Trail Blazers.

The battle for the eighth seed has become quite intense between Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and New Orleans. The Thunder want no part of it.

As long as they can continue to take care of business against sub-.500 teams, they shouldn't have much reason to worry down the stretch. Oklahoma City has the 13th-toughest remaining schedule with their opponents averaging a winning percentage of .513, per Tankathon.com.

Two-game slides won't doom the Thunder as long as they stop those streaks from snowballing, just like they were able to against the Pelicans. 

        

What's Next

New Orleans returns to the court with another matchup against a team fighting for a playoff spot in Portland. The Pelicans visit the Blazers on Feb. 21 in a nationally televised game on ESPN. Portland currently holds the ninth spot in the Western Conference and presents an opportunity for the Pelicans to gain some ground in the standings.

The Thunder will also need to be sharp coming out of the break as they host the Denver Nuggets in another ESPN matchup on Feb. 21 before the Pelicans game.