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The 18 hours that might've saved Zion Williamson and the Pelicans' season

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Published in Basketball
Monday, 04 December 2023 05:29

IT'S NOV. 17 and the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets are in New Orleans for an important in-season tournament contest. With 9:07 left in the first quarter, Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram corrals a rebound off a Jonas Valanciunas missed 3 and stands a foot behind the free throw line.

To his right, Williamson, three feet behind the 3-point line and about to backpedal, sees Ingram reel in the loose ball and sprints up the right side of the court toward the basket.

Ingram sees him immediately, firing a bounce pass between two defenders to a slashing Williamson. Once he gathers the ball, Williamson takes one hard dribble and throws down a thundering dunk with his left hand, drawing an early timeout from Denver coach Michael Malone.

As the teams head toward their respective benches, Ingram gives a subtle finger point, a quick acknowledgement, to Williamson. It is a show of their building chemistry, a small but important sign that the two know how much they mean to each other -- and how much this relationship means to the team.

Three and a half quarters later, the New Orleans Pelicans of old begin to surface. They're clinging to a one-point lead late against the defending NBA champs after building a 20-point cushion in the middle of the third quarter. An all-too-familiar feeling -- of dread, of yet another disappointing and unnecessary loss -- seeps into the arena. Ten days ago, this same Pelicans team had been up by 20 points on this same Nuggets team -- and lost by 18.

With 3:21 remaining and down by one, the Nuggets have possession and a chance to take the lead. Aaron Gordon feeds the ball to two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who has Valanciunas sealed off in the paint. As Jokic turns to his right, Pelicans second-year guard Dyson Daniels is there to take the ball away.

From there, New Orleans' two best players take over. On the next possession, Ingram backs down Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and passes out to Daniels, who hoists it immediately back to Ingram in the short corner. Ingram's 16-footer splashes through.

The next possession, Williamson dribbles up court, splits Gordon, Jokic and Christian Braun, and finishes with a left-handed layup over the front of the rim.

Thirty seconds later, Williamson is at it again. He brings the ball up and runs a quick handoff action with Ingram at the top of the key. Ingram gives it right back, and Williamson hits a 13-foot jumper in the lane, drawing the and-1.

Williamson misses the free throw, but Daniels gets the rebound and finds Ingram. With the shot clock ticking down, Ingram dribbles to his left, gets to the free throw line and rises up for another 16-footer.

Swish. The Pelicans take an eight-point lead. Timeout Nuggets.

As Ingram walks back to the Pelicans' bench, he is greeted by Williamson. The two give each other a quick handshake, as the Pelicans put themselves in position to secure an in-season tournament victory.

It is their second consecutive victory -- a small streak that belies its significance.

Because four days prior, the Pelicans were on the precipice, losers of five straight games, with an average margin of defeat of more than 14 points. They were discombobulated, playing Hero Ball, ravaged by injuries -- again.

Little did they know, the next day, their entire season would change.

FIVE DAYS PRIOR to the win over Denver, the Dallas Mavericks had traveled to New Orleans and led by as many as 29 points before walking away with a 12-point victory. After a 4-1 start to the season, the Pelicans sat ninth in the West at 4-6.

Following the game, Williamson, who'd scored 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting but committed a season-high six turnovers, sat in front of the lectern and addressed the loss in a postgame news conference. "Right now, it's tough," he'd said. "I'm taking a little bit of a back seat right now. I'm trusting the process. I'm trying my best to buy in right now."

Handed their fifth straight loss, the Pelicans' young season had hit a low point.

The injuries had piled up. The Pelicans were without guard CJ McCollum, who had been out for weeks because of a partially punctured lung, and wing Trey Murphy, who had yet to make his season debut because of a torn meniscus.

Herb Jones had missed three games. Naji Marshall had just returned. Jose Alvarado hadn't played.

McCollum, who was in the hospital for the birth of his daughter in between the Nov. 12 and 14 games against Dallas, said on his podcast that he called veteran Larry Nance after the debilitating loss. They agreed they'd both seen enough.

So Nance called for a players-only meeting. Noon. Some 18 hours after yet another dispiriting loss in a Williamson-Ingram era full of them.

Inside the locker room at the Pelicans' practice facility, the team gathered for close to an hour. Multiple sources said the meeting was not contentious and that players were receptive to criticism from their peers.

"There's no winning basketball games if you're not all swimming in the same direction," Nance told ESPN. "And for whatever reason, early on we felt a bit splintered, even when we were 4-1.

"It just felt a little that we could be better. And I thought we did a great job of addressing exactly what we needed to address and walking into the meeting with a clear direction and a path the meeting was supposed to take. And it took that."

In the Pelicans' first game after the meeting, New Orleans responded with a 131-110 victory over the same Mavericks team that had forced the meeting and finished with a then-season-high 33 assists. The Pelicans have won seven of the nine games Williamson and Ingram have played together since the meeting.

"We just weren't on the same page," Williamson said. "Now ... we know what we want to do, we know how we're going to do it, and [if] we win, we win. But if we lose, it's easier to pinpoint where we messed up."

And what has become clear is what seemed obvious before -- the Pelicans go only as far as their two All-Stars take them.

"We follow their lead. Those are our two best players. As they go, we go," Nance said.

"They came out and were monsters. And when those two go like that, the rest of us have no choice [but to] follow their lead."

PRIOR TO THE meeting, the 2023-2024 Ingram-Williamson minutes were troublingly bad. In the 147 minutes the two shared, the team averaged 103.2 points per 100 possessions and allowed 110.9 points per 100 possessions.

In the previous three seasons the duo had played (Williamson missed the 2021-22 season), the two always had a positive net rating. But they hadn't played together since Nov. 25, 2022 -- and it was showing.

Since the meeting, the Pelicans own a 127.6 offensive rating in the 152 minutes the two have played together, with a 106.1 defensive rating. Both would lead the NBA.

"This is the most we played together consistently game to game and so it's getting better and better," Ingram told ESPN. "The communication has picked up, which helps a lot on the floor, off the floor, just talking about the game."

In five seasons, Williamson and Ingram have played a combined 2,225 minutes together. Chicago Bulls teammates Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic played 2,236 minutes together just last season.

Ingram said he and Williamson are constantly having conversations about where the other wants the ball. They talk at shootaround, at practices, about how and where and when to set up the other to succeed.

They're doing additional work together following practices with assistant coach James Borrego specifically on their pick-and-roll game.

"It translated quickly from the first day we did it, and the more we do it, the better we get," Williamson told ESPN. "And honestly, it's just a mental and visual thing.

"I think just me and BI seeing the spots and what it looked like on the court, I think that visual just helps us on, OK, if I come off the screen, throw it then, or when I set a screen, set it like this, give BI time to get downhill and get to his middy."

And as the two grow together, so too, does the team they lead.

Before the meeting, the Pelicans averaged 22.9 assists per game, 26th in the league. Since then, they are averaging 28.8 assists per game, the fifth-best mark in the league.

"Not until this year where we were a lot more vocal about the small nuances of basketball," Williamson said. "I think that just goes to us just growing up, just communicating a lot more within the game and off the court as well. And then the coaches just, especially coach JB, grabbing me and BI at the practice and working on different sets."

New Orleans has also found more success going to its "point Zion" sets in which Williamson brings the ball up and initiates the offense.

According to Second Spectrum data, since Nov. 14, Williamson has brought the ball up 17.3 possessions per game and the Pelicans have averaged 1.17 points per possession on them. Prior to then: 8.8 possessions per game, 0.93 points per possession.

"We got a number of guys that can initiate our plays," Pelicans coach Willie Green said. "I think it's helpful, but then there's a time in the game where we want to put the ball in Zion's hands. We want to put it in Brandon's hands and we want to work with those two guys, maybe our 5 man in the middle of the floor and put some shooters in the corners and sort of let the dominoes fall."

SEVENTEEN DAYS AFTER the most important hour of their season, facing the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 1, Williamson and Ingram combine to go 7-of-23 from the field, Ingram missing all four of his 3-point attempts. They score just 26 points between them.

And New Orleans still comes out with the win.

McCollum, back from injury, scores 19 points. Valanciunas posts one of his best games of the season with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Murphy debuts and scores 18 points off the bench, including four 3-pointers -- all of which were assisted by either Ingram or Williamson.

Even when they aren't scoring, Williamson and Ingram will be the ones to lead New Orleans where they believe they can go. Now eighth in the West at 11-10, the Pelicans are set to take on the Sacramento Kings in the in-season tournament quarterfinals Monday.

"Neither one of them are the most vocal people," Nance said, "so for them to show us by their actions is everything we needed to see."

Said Ingram: "We started understanding the responsibility, and guys started looking at us saying that we start everything."

"They're going to look at us offensively and defensively to be the best that we can be, and they're going to follow us."

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