NBA: Pelicans pound Rockets behind Zion Williamson’s 27 points

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New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson had 27 points and nine assists, and the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the struggling Houston Rockets 127-105 in the NBA on Thursday night for their eighth victory in nine games.

“We know what the stakes are,” said Williamson, who — if he remains healthy — is on track to compete in his first NBA playoff games this spring.

The latest victory improved the Pelicans to 34-22, good for fifth in the Western Conference.

Williamson, who has missed most of his first four seasons with injuries, has played in 45 games this season, leads New Orleans in points per game with 22.5, and looks rested after not being selected for last weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities.

“At this point, I’ve got to win,” Williamson said when asked about the opportunity to compete in some of the highest-stakes games of his career in coming weeks. “That’s the only way to show people.”

Playing without high-scoring wing Brandon Ingram, who sat out with a non-COVID illness, the Pelicans got highly productive nights from their other four usual starters.

CJ McCollum scored 28 points, Jonas Valanciunas had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and Herb Jones had 17 points and a career-high seven steals for New Orleans, which led 63-50 at halftime and by as many as 29 points during the second half.

“Herb brings it every night — he really does — on both ends of the floor,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said of Jones, whose highlights included a driving dunk as he was fouled, three 3s and an alley-oop lob to Williamson. “When he has nights like tonight, where he’s guarding everybody and getting steals, getting deflections, getting blocks, rebounding the ball, shooting the ball well, you can see how important he is to this group.”

Alperen Sengun had 20 points and nine rebounds for Houston, which has lost six of seven and played the last eight minutes with its starters on the bench.

“You have to take a little pride in guarding your matchup and knowing their tendencies and where they want to get to,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “Especially Williamson – that’s what he does, forces his way to the basket; I think the blow-bys and straight-line drives were a little too easy for him.

“Even when we doubled him at times, he still beat the double teams,” Udoka added. “Our starters weren’t as sharp as we needed to be.”

Rookie Amen Thompson, the fourth overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, scored a season-high 22 points. Jalen Green added 10 points for the Rockets.

Green inserted Trey Murphy III into the starting lineup for Ingram. He scored 13 points, but the career 39% 3-point shooter struggled with his accuracy, missing 8 of 10 from deep.

The final meeting of the regular season between the Southwest Division rivals was a chippy one. Officials called 39 total fouls — 21 on the Pelicans — and had to step in to break up a brief fourth quarter scrum that resulted in technical fouls for Valanciunas and Reggie Bullock Jr.

“That’s part of the game and I think there was a little frustration (from Houston), based on the score,” Green said. “But for us, it’s being the more mentally tough team in between the lines. No matter what happens, we’re not backing down from anybody.”

The Pelicans tied their season series with the Rockets at 2-2, thanks in part to the 28th double-double this season by Valanciunas, who did most of his scoring inside, but also hit both 3s he attempted.

Williamson, who routinely handles the ball and initiates the offense like a guard, had his fifth game this season with at least nine assists.

“We’re seeing Zion get better and better as the season progresses,” Green said. “This is what happens when you put the ball in his hands, especially early.”



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