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There’s a lot to be said for the chaos Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans cause, but Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks scored a victory for control Wednesday night.
In the decisive overtime stretch of Dallas’ 127-123 win, Doncic patiently probed New Orleans’ defense, unhurried by the intense pressure of both the moment and All-Defensive vice grip Jrue Holiday.
In short succession, he calmly canned a step-back three, slipped a bounce pass through a keyhole-sized opening to a rolling Kristaps Porzingis for a dunk, roasted Holiday with a sequence of roughly 75 herky-jerky dribble moves, hit Maxi Kleber for a wide-open look from the corner and then had the awareness to stay engaged and tap Kleber’s miss back out to the perimeter, effectively icing the contest.
That may seem like a description of frenzied activity, but the most remarkable aspect of a night in which Doncic registered 30 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists for his 14th triple-double of the season was the placid mastery he exerted in the most helter-skelter moments.
Williamson, playing on the second night of a back-to-back for the first time in his career, gave what he had in response. And what he had were brutalizing drives, punishing post-ups and physically overpowering interior play.
He finished with 21 points, six boards and three assists in a career-high 35 minutes. That he summoned the energy to finish strong after exiting visibly gassed in the third quarter spoke to Williamson’s competitiveness—not to mention his understanding of just how badly New Orleans needed this game.
Fatigue was a factor, though, and it seemed to exacerbate some of Williamson’s less polished tendencies.
He took the ball into trouble as often as not, turning it over just twice but getting stuffed at the rim several times. Dallas logged a season-high 13 blocks on the night, many coming against an out-of-control Williamson hellbent on getting to the cup through a crowd.
Still, Zion was a force. He typified the valiant—if often disorganized—effort of a desperate Pels team.
New Orleans’ defeat very likely put an end to its playoff hopes. Though FiveThirtyEight still gives the Pelicans a surprisingly high 43 percent chance to reach the postseason, it’s difficult to overlook the deficit: five games back of the eighth seed with 20 to go.
It’s similarly tough to ignore this bit of history:
A soft remaining schedule (the third-easiest, per Tankathon.com) fosters hope, but we haven’t even touched on the reason for New Orleans’ urgency against Dallas. It collapsed defensively and couldn’t score against the cobbled-together zone defense of the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, dropping a home game it should have won by double digits.
When the Pels can’t be trusted to steamroll competition as pre-flattened as the Wolves, what does an “easy” schedule even mean?
That brutal defeat and Wednesday’s nobler one should alert the Pelicans to what they must improve going forward. New Orleans has to sharpen itself, forging a formless lump of molten talent into something more refined.
There’s no questioning the team’s raw ability, just as there’s no denying Williamson’s physical dominance. But even a shred of Doncic’s and Dallas’ superior craft and poise would do wonders for New Orleans’ development.
There have been signs of growth this year.
Lonzo Ball tied his career high with seven made threes against Dallas, finishing with 25 points, 11 boards and six assists while playing stout defense on Doncic when the two matched up. Though still flawed (he’s a weak finisher inside and has yet to develop an in-between game), Ball’s time in New Orleans has seen him hone a trustworthy jumper and build a better understanding of how to impact the game with his passing and defense.
Basically, if Lonzo can learn to shoot, it makes almost anything seem possible.
Williamson is a different sort of challenge.
It shouldn’t be difficult to get Zion to a place at which he’s not every opponent’s prime target in the pick-and-roll. And his court sense already shows up with the occasional quick read when doubled.
But how do you preserve the recklessness and force of his game while smoothing the edges a bit? Can a force of nature be taught to pick its spots?
New Orleans certainly shouldn’t discourage aggression from a player whose greatest gift is the ability to overpower anything in front of him. Still, some level of tempering seems necessary—not just for Zion, but for New Orleans’ whole operation.
The need for sharpening showed up in the late-game execution Wednesday. As Doncic coolly probed his way to quality shots, the Pels flew around in a maelstrom of uncertainty.
Their penultimate possession in regulation lacked a discernible plan and resulted in an airball three from Ball, which incorrectly reset the shot clock. Despite the undeserved extra time, Derrick Favors (yes, Derrick Favors) promptly gagged up another contested three that, like Ball’s attempt, didn’t so much as graze rim.
It was a mess, but Nicolo Melli bailed New Orleans out with an impossible corner three over a perfect contest from Porzingis to force overtime.
Doncic took care of things from there.
There’s more than one way to build a powerhouse. Zion and the Pels shouldn’t aspire to be Luka and the Mavs—and if we’re making the Doncic-Williamson cornerstone comparison, they’re also essentially a year behind Dallas’ developmental pace.
If New Orleans figures out how to mix some control into all that chaos, it’ll get plenty more chances to wage battles with the Mavs and their contrasting style down the line…hopefully during a hard-fought playoff series or two.