Popovich praises and defends Zion, reminisces about watching Jordan play

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) goes to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles (41) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) goes to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles (41) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Zion Williamson scored the final point of his first NBA regular season game as a packed and standing crowd belted out chants of “M-V-P!”

Then the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick went to the bench — as mandated by medical staff — and watched the game slip away from the Pelicans while unheeded chants of, “We want Zion!” echoed around the Smoothie King Center.

Williamson capped his long-awaited NBA debut by scoring 17 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and stirring the crowd into a frenzy — but the savvy and composed San Antonio Spurs weathered the surge for a 121-117 victory Wednesday night.

The celebrated rookie out of Duke, whose maiden regular season appearance was delayed three months by arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, said watching the final five minutes from the bench out of caution was “very hard.”

“I'm 19, honestly. In that moment, I'm not thinking about longevity,” Williamson continued. “I'm thinking about winning that game, so it was very tough.”

LaMarcus Aldridge had 32 points and 14 rebounds, DeMar DeRozan added 20 points, and the San Antonio Spurs withstood Williamson's late surge for a 121-117 victory over New Orleans on Wednesday night.

“The crowd got into it. We didn’t let it rattle us,” DeRozan said, adding that Williamson “went on a hell of a run.”

"It was great that we held our composure, executed when we needed to, and came up with stops when we needed to,” DeRozan added.

With Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sending double-teams at Williamson, the rookie struggled to find his shot during the first three quarters.

During an in-game sideline interview on ESPN, Popovich was asked to give his first impression Williamson’s performance and scoffed at the question.

“Well I think that’s unfair,” said Popovich. “He’s going to be a great player and he’s just coming back after being out a hell of a long time.”

When the fourth quarter began, he had just five points, four rebounds, an assist and four turnovers in a little less than 12 minutes.

But when the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson found himself open for a straight-on 3 with about nine minutes to go, he let it fly and it went down, infusing the stadium with energy.

He followed that up with a torrid three-minute stretch in which he laid in an alley-oop lob, put back a missed shot with a reverse layup and hit three more 3s.

Williamson wasn't known for shooting 3s when he starred at Duke. He was so often able to dominate inside. But Williamson noted that his long rehabilitation probably helped him refine his outside shot.

“When you're not able to move around and do athletic movements for a while, the only thing you can do is just shoot spot-up jumpers, I guess that was the result of that.”

Williamson came into the game knowing his playing time would be limited — even though he started. He had played a total of 18:18 when he was subbed out for good with the Pelicans — who trailed by 12 to start the final period — down 109-108.

Soon after, DeRozan began San Antonio's decisive surge with a finger roll and pull-up jumper. Aldridge followed with a tip-in and jumper shortly after.

New Orleans got as close as 119-117 on Josh Hart's 3, but Aldridge responded with two free throws and the Spurs did not give up another basket.

“I was really proud of our guys,” Popovich said. “We took a huge blow. We stayed the course and just played.”

Brandon Ingram scored 22 for New Orleans but missed 16 of 22 shots, while Lonzo Ball had 14 points and 12 assists.

Williamson entered the Smoothie King Center wearing a black suit with a blue design and blue basketball sneakers. The hype surrounding the game garnered national attention.

Before tip-off, Popovich sounded genuinely enthused to be in the building for Williamson’s first game.

“You just feel like you’re seeing a new generation come in and you get to see it. You get to be right in the middle of it," Popovich said.

He began to reminisce about his first NBA job as a San Antonio assistant under Larry Brown in the 1988-89 season, which was the heart of the Michael Jordan era.

“I can remember my first days as an assistant for Larry and being mesmerized sitting on the bench watching Michael go up and down the court. I don’t even know if I knew what was going on in the game. I just couldn’t take my eyes off of him,” Popovich said. “So, I think about that and now we’ve got this generation coming in and it’s been a lot of fun to see.”

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