Under a cloud of worldwide sorrow, former Duke basketball great Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans managed to keep their emotions in check and beat one of the Eastern Conference's elite teams.
The NBA decided not to cancel evening games after the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, as well as seven others, died in a helicopter crash just outside of Los Angeles on Sunday morning. Though Twitter erupted over the league's call, those who took the floor — including Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans — deserve respect for being able to push through the sadness.
"You hate to see it happen like that, to [Bryant] and his daughter," Williamson said on ESPN after his team's 123-108 home win over the Boston Celtics. "I send my prayers, my condolences. I couldn't focus at first when I first heard the news. It was tough getting out there at first. Man, I just send my prayers to the family. I'm sorry it happened like that."
Later, Williamson expressed to media members how much the legend's game inspired his own:
"Kobe meant a lot to me growing up. I had both jerseys, 8 and 24, growing up. I feel like I study his footwork game. I think he's [in the] top two of all time...one of the greatest taken away from us too soon. But his impact will forever be part of this game. He's a legend. Legends never die, so he will forever be remembered."
Williamson also mentioned he never had the opportunity to meet Bryant.
The four former Duke basketball players who saw action for the Pelicans — Williamson, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick, and Frank Jackson — combined for 55 points. Jahlil Okafor, the fifth member of the Bayou Blue Devils, did not play (nor did Celtics star Jayson Tatum, another former one-and-done in Durham).
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Williamson continued what is now a remarkable three-game start to his NBA career following a three-month rehab from knee surgery. The 2019 No. 1 draft pick's team-high 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting across only 27 minutes against Boston bring his career mark to 58 points in 66 minutes (31.6 per 36 minutes). Also, the 6-foot-6, 284-pound lefty grabbed 11 rebounds, bringing his season total to 24 (13.1 per 36 minutes).
Furthermore, Williamson had his first opportunity to close out a game, resulting in his first victory while wearing a Pelicans jersey. After seeing only three minutes to start the fourth quarter — he had not yet played at the end of any quarter from his debut through the first three quarters on Sunday — head coach Alvin Gentry put the rookie from Spartanburg, S.C., back in with 4:30 on the clock, as the Celtics remained within striking distance.
Smart move. Williamson responded by scoring his team's final eight points across the last three minutes.
However, the two high-flying Zion highlights came in the second and third quarters. The first was a flush off an inbounds lob from point guard Lonzo Ball, who finished with a career-high 15 assists:
The second was a putback after a 3-point miss from Redick, who dropped 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting, including 3-for-5 from downtown (4-for-5 from the foul line):
The only noticeable flaws in Williamson's play through three games are his turnovers (10 total) and foul shooting, which obviously could prove costly in the future. His 3-for-8 clip from the charity stripe against Boston matched his combined mark from his first two games, so that's 6-for-16 total (37.5 percent).
That said, from the field, Zion Williamson is now a combined 24-for-36 (66.7 percent). Plus, from beyond the arc, he's 4-for-6 (also 66.7 percent).
With the win, the Pelicans improved to 18-29, only 4.5 games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference; meanwhile, the Celtics dropped to 30-15 (fourth in the East). New Orleans next plays at the 12-34 Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., marking Zion Williamson's first road game.
In a day of utter shock and widespread mourning, Zion Williamson, his teammates, the Celtics, and other squads in action admirably held back the tears long enough to at least provide somewhat-therapeutic entertainment to basketball fans everywhere.