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NBA Fastbreak: Zion Williamson has Pelicans pushing for playoffs

Pelicans forward Zion Williamson grabs a rebound during a game against the Celtics on Jan. 26, 2020.
Pelicans forward Zion Williamson grabs a rebound during a game against the Celtics before the All-Star break.
(Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

Like a runner fighting off a cramp for the first 75% of the race, the New Orleans Pelicans look like a team that’s hitting its stride. The only question left: Is there enough track left in front of them?

Finally healthy, New Orleans will come to Los Angeles to play the Lakers next week as they try to chase down the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, entering this week four games behind Memphis.

With Zion Williamson healthy and dominating, it’s not hard to imagine New Orleans jumping Portland and San Antonio before fighting the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed.

The biggest reason is Williamson, who has lived up to all the hype with a historic start to his NBA career, averaging 22.4 points on 57.8% shooting from the field.

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He’s just the third No. 1 overall pick to score at least 200 points in his first 10 games, joining Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. He’s still a work in progress, particularly on defense, but the early returns have been wildly promising for the Pelicans.

Winners of seven of 12 since Williamson’s debut, the Pelicans have reloaded after dealing Anthony Davis to the Lakers, with the added bonus of Brandon Ingram excelling in a leading role.

At first the NBA’s decision to switch the All-Star game format was a bit confusing, but the result of the Elam Ending was more excitement than in years past.

Now with Williamson, Ingram can concentrate on playmaking as well as scoring while willing passers like Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball add balance in the backcourt. Add in shooters J.J. Redick, Nicolo Melli and Josh Hart, and a veteran big man in Derrick Favors, and the Pelicans look as complete as any team trying to get that final playoff spot.

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Tuesday’s game at Staples Center will be Williamson’s debut against the Lakers. If the Pelicans keep winning, the season finale might not come until the playoffs.

Clippers’ calm

After the Clippers lost to the Sacramento Kings for the second time in three weeks, there was some talk about the team’s lack of urgency in the first game coming out of the All-Star break, about the careless turnovers and miscommunication

All of that chatter isn’t important, at least not to one rival coach who scoffed when asked to diagnose the Clippers’ problems.

“They’re awesome,” he said.

Carmelo Anthony says his best game ever came in the Final Four when Syracuse defeated Texas at the Superdome. ‘Everything was just clicking,’ he said.

The caveat is still that the team needs more time on the court together to figure out everything, but accomplishing that before the postseason is not an impossible task. After Toronto dealt for Marc Gasol last season, he and Kawhi Leonard played together in only 19 games before the playoffs. By late spring, they had played in 24 postseason games together.

“It is about the right team peaking at the right time,” Leonard said Saturday. “I don’t think we have even got there yet. It feels like we are getting close but we just need guys to get healthy. And guys can get healthy and we all got to be consistent from there.”

Notes

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said he’s aiming to return March 1 after missing all but four games this season because of a broken hand. ... One name noticeably absent from rapper Common’s All-Star narration of the recent history of Chicago basketball? Anthony Davis. … Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns will miss at least two weeks with a wrist injury, likely assuring the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 seasons. … After Boston visits the Lakers on Sunday, Celtics players and coaches are expected to stay in Los Angeles to attend the Kobe Bryant memorial Monday. Players and coaches from the Clippers and Sacramento Kings also are expected to attend.

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