NEW ORLEANS -- What should have been an uneventful and easy fourth quarter turned into anything but for the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night.
Once up by 31 in the third quarter, the Pelicans watched as the Toronto Raptors chipped away at their lead and cut it to 11 with 5:28 to play.
The Pelicans were already playing without Brandon Ingram (left big toe contusion) and CJ McCollum (return to play conditioning after health and safety protocols), so they turned to Zion Williamson to deliver -- and he did just that.
Williamson blocked Pascal Siakam on one end and got by the Raptors defense for a double-clutch dunk on the other. On the ensuing Toronto possession, Williamson stole the ball from Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby and finished it off with a layup to regain control and allow the Pelicans to coast to a 126-108 victory.
Williamson finished with a season-high 33 points to go along with 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks on 12-of-15 shooting. He's only the third player in NBA history to post that stat line while shooting 80% or above from the field since steals and blocks were tracked as stats in 1973-74 (Amar'e Stoudamire in 2008 and Ben Simmons in 2020).
"I told him tonight in the locker room that he was a monster. He carried us," Pelicans coach Willie Green said. "He continued to make the right plays over and over again. When we needed a bucket, we put the ball in his hands. He got to the basket. He got to the free throw line. He was flying around on both ends of the floor."
Williamson credited the Pelicans' team defense as the reason he was able to make plays during that crucial stretch.
"I felt like I was moving my feet very well," Williamson said. "Some of those blocks I was able to get, it was because it was Dyson [Daniels] or Herb [Jones] or Trey [Murphy] sliding their feet forcing the player to alter their shot so I was able to get those blocks. And I feel like collectively as a group, we just played very well on defense."
Green often talks about breaking the season into 10-game increments. Over the first 10 games of the season, the Pelicans went 5-5 and were allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions, a mark that was 15th in the league. In the second 10 games of the season, when New Orleans was 7-3, the Pelicans allowed 107.1 points per 100 possessions, the second-best defensive rating in the league over that stretch.
While Williamson's defense has improved as of late, Green still credits the team as a whole for the improvement.
"I'll continue to say it: It's really about our team," Green said. "Z is a big part of that. All of our guys. Collectively being on the same page. Guarding the ball then finishing possessions with rebounds. Once again, my hats off to Z. We're putting a lot on his shoulders right now. He's carrying us."
With the victory, the Pelicans (13-8) improved to five games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2017-18 season.
They've also done it while shuffling the lineup. The intended starting lineup of Williamson, McCollum, Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Jones has played in only 10 of a possible 21 games this season, and in two of those games, Ingram was injured in the first half and unable to finish.
But other players have stepped up. Murphy had 26 points while making six 3-pointers. Rookie Daniels had 14 points, nine assists and eight rebounds off the bench.
"When guys go down, we don't look at it as an obstacle," Green said. "For us, it's an opportunity to go out and grow."
For Williamson, it goes back to something Green said months ago.
"When you have two players like that out, you are going to see and feel a difference," Williamson said. "I give Coach praise all the time on it. At the beginning of the season, the beginning of training camp, the conditioning test wasn't nothing physical.
"During training camp, it was just stay ready. If you stay ready, you won't have to get ready. So when your name is called in situations like this, Trey, Herb, Jose [Alvarado], especially Dyson, they've all stepped up."