For the second straight game on Sunday, New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball was sidelined with a left hip flexor soreness.
That has given the Pelicans the opportunity to use Zion Williamson, who is listed at 6-foot-7, as essentially the point guard and initiate the offense. Williamson has handled the new duties better than could have been expected. In Sunday’s 116-109 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had 38 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. That followed Williamson’s 37-point, 15-rebound and career-high 8-assists effort in Friday’s 101-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“We want to get him more experience at that spot going forward because I think that’s where his future is in this game,” Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I really do.”
Since Williamson wasn’t the biggest player on his youth teams, his coaches focused on developing his point guard skills. The extra work on ballhandling and passing were beneficial for Williamson, especially after he grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-6 between eighth and 10th grade.
And now the Pelicans are benefitting as well.
“It just feels natural to me,” Williamson said. “I’ve been playing the game since I was 4. At this point, it just feels natural. I’m still learning. But certain things just do feel natural.”
While the Pelicans started to use Williamson in the point guard role in February, Friday’s game marked a big difference. He was their primary ball handler throughout the game against the Sixers instead of just handling the ball after getting a rebound and pushing it up or the team going with it off off dead balls and free throws.
Of course, a lot of that had to do with Ball being out for the ninth time in the past 12 games because of a sore hip. Even with Ball expected to return this week, it appears the Pelicans will continue initiating the offense with Williamson.
“He just needs reps and more and more and we’ve increased it throughout the year giving him more and more opportunities,” Van Gundy said. “We’d like to give him more going forward. We’ll try to build some more things for him.”
Williamson is averaging 26.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 61.7% from the field this season.
Celtics’ epic 31-3 run ends Nuggets’ streak
To say this season has been underwhelming for the Boston Celtics would be an understatement. They have a 28-26 record and hold the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But they have slowly staged a turnaround, winning five of their past six games. Their 105-87 win over the Denver Nuggets – the league’s hottest team – is the kind of game that could accelerate that turnaround.
They limited the Nuggets to eight points in the fourth quarter. Normally that would be the biggest storyline of the game. But the competing storyline is that the Celtics went on an epic 31-3 run.
The Celtics were trailing 79-65 when Jaylen Brown scored on a driving layup with 1:31 remaining in the third quarter. By the time Grant Williams ended the run with a layup with 4:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Celtics had a 96-82 lead. That effectively put away the Nuggets and ended their eight-game win streak.
“We just needed something to get us going,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You know, I thought we were close to going the other way there when it was 76-62.”
Brown and Jayson Tatum and fueled the comeback. Tatum finished with 28 points two days after a career-best 53-point performance against Minnesota, and Brown had 20.
Heat’s defense comes to the rescue
The Miami Heat hear all the talk about the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks being the teams most likely to emerge from the East. The Heat’s message has been: Don’t forget about us.
Even though they will be without new acquisition Victor Oladipo for their four-game Western Conference swing, they begin the important trip with a 107-98 win Sunday in Portland. It was the Heat’s sixth win in their past seven, which followed a season-high six-game losing skid.
Miami realizes it will have to ride its vaunted defense into another NBA Finals appearance. And, excuse the pun, Miami turned up the heat defensively against the Trail Blazers. The Heat forced turnovers on the Blazers’ first three possessions of the game, squashing the Blazes’ pick-and-rolls and setting a tone. By halftime, the Blazers had 12 turnovers, and the Heat had 20 points off those turnovers. The Blazers average 11.1 turnovers, the second-lowest in the league behind the Spurs’ 11.0.
“We know on the road we have to be able to defend at a high level,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our defense has to travel. It’s a key to our success.”
Comparing DeMar DeRozan to Kobe Bryant
DeMar DeRozan hit the tiebreaking jumper with 0.5 seconds left, giving San Antonio a 119-117 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday halting the Spurs’ five-game losing streak.
After Luka Doncic scored on a 10-foot floater with 19 second remaining to tie the game, DeRozan came around a screen but still had just one defender on him in Dorian Finney-Smith as Doncic peeled off the play. DeRozan hit a step-back 20-footer.
That led Spurs guard Dejounte Murray to compare DeRozan to Kobe Bryant, saying, “Shoot, if they double, we want him to take it. Kobe would have taken it with five guys on him – take that (bleep).”
Game of the night: 76ers at Mavericks
The Sixers begin their most consequential week of the regular season with Monday’s game at Dallas. The Sixers are tied with the Nets for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but their stretch of games over the next two weeks could determine how long they can stay there. After Monday’s game at Dallas, they return home for a four-game set against the Nets (Wednesday), the Clippers (Friday), Warriors ((April 19) and the Suns (April 21) before traveling for a pair of games at Milwaukee (April 22 and 24). Of course, the Sixers’ game against the Mavericks on Monday won’t be a cakewalk. Dallas has six wins in its past eight games. They are now 29-23 after a COVID-related 8-13 start. And Monday could mark the Mavericks debut of JJ Redick, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Pelicans.