NBA restart: Zion Williamson continues to be a per-minute beast; Donovan Mitchell answers call in crunch time
The New Orleans Pelicans had to hit the ground running in this NBA restart and for the most part they did. They erased a big lead and built one themselves, going up on the Jazz by as many as 16 points. But they let it get away, falling to Utah 106-104 Thursday night in Orlando. With seven "seeding" games remaining, New Orleans now sits four games back in the loss column of the No. 8 seeded Grizzlies.
Reminder: If the No. 9 seed finishes within four games of the No. 8 seed, a play-in tournament will determine the final seed. And New Orleans isn't alone chasing the Grizzlies; the Kings and Spurs are within three games, and the Blazers are within four.
As for the Jazz, their playoff berth is secure, but their seeding and more importantly their first-round matchup remains in the air. They came in as the No. 4 seed in the West, but only one game in the loss column separates them from No. 6 Houston. Here are five big takeaways from the first game of the 2019-20 NBA restart.
I hate this saying. Normally when you're missing, you're not getting the right shots, or the wrong guy is taking them. But there is truth in this old NBA adage, and on Thursday night it rang true as when it was all said and done, the difference was a Brandon Ingram potential game-winning 3-pointer that rimmed in and out from the right wing.
Watch that clip again, and you'll see JJ Redick, who was on fire all night, coming free at the top off three staggered screens, and Ingram didn't so much as glance at him. That play was absolutely designed for Redick with an Ingram iso as the secondary option. Personally, I'm OK with Ingram taking that shot. He has emerged as New Orleans' best player, he played terrific vs. Utah, and the confidence to take that shot means a lot moving forward.
The first time Zion touched the ball on Thursday, he got going left off a downhill catch and finished an and-one. He proceeded to catch a lob from Lonzo Ball. Then another from Jrue Holiday. In his first 10 minutes, he scored nine points. All told, he scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 15 minutes.
But the attention is going to be on those 15 minutes. Why didn't Williamson play more? Here's what Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry had to say on the matter, via ESPN's Andrew Lopez:
Zion left the bubble on July 16 to deal with a family matter and returned on July 24. He was a game-time decision to play Thursday as he continues to ramp back up his conditioning from that missed time, and to Gentry's point, the organization is not going to risk the health of the future franchise player. But perhaps Gentry could've distributed those minutes a bit differently in order to keep Zion available for the stretch run of a close game.
It's a tough predicament. Fifteen minutes is not a lot to spread around, and for a good chunk of the game, it looked like the Pels were going to win going away. Either way, the Pelicans made it clear: Making the playoffs this season would be great, but the unquestionable top priority is the future. As it should be.
Rudy Gobert caught a lot of flak for how irresponsibly he acted at the start of this COVID-19 pandemic, jokingly touching all the microphones after a socially distanced media session and reportedly acting foolishly within the Jazz locker room, only to turn out to actually have the virus. Donovan Mitchell subsequently tested positive for COVID, and though we can't know who passed the virus to who, the way Gobert acted made him the NBA's enemy No. 1.
So it was fitting that Gobert won the game for Utah on Thursday, cashing the game-winning free throws with under seven seconds to play to cap a night in which he posted 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks -- one of which was this volleyball spike on Zion Williamson.
Gobert has been vocal about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense, and he got that chance vs. New Orleans. Utah found him on lobs and went to him in the post on the first possession of the game.
Give Donovan Mitchell his props, man. He struggled all night as he was ruthlessly hounded by Jrue Holiday, who was a beast for New Orleans. But when it came down to crunch time, Mitchell scored eight points over the final four minutes. He got into the lane and drew fouls (he knocked down two clutch free throws with 48 seconds to play to put Utah up), he drilled a smooth mid-range jumper and finished this tough, hanging deuce off a Euro step:
Then on the game's deciding play he shook Holiday and delivered this beautiful dime to Rudy Gobert, who was fouled and knocked down the game-winning free throws.
Mitchell finished with 20 tough points on 6-of-14 shooting. It's going to be a hard road for Mitchell without the help of Bojan Bogdanovic, who's out for the season. The Jazz, and Mitchell specifically, are going to have to grind out on offense, and it won't always be easy to get to the rim as New Orleans made it on Thursday. If Utah is going to win a playoff series, it might have to be pretty ugly overall with timely one-on-one offense from Mitchell down the stretch.