NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson apologized for his 360-degree, one-handed slam dunk that angered the Phoenix Suns at the end of a game that the New Orleans Pelicans were already going to win.
Still, the crowd-pleasing play symbolized Williamson’s potential to rise above the disappointments of previous seasons and live up to the extraordinary hype that followed him into the NBA.
The dunk contest-style jam capped a season-high 35-point performance for Williamson, and the Pelicans beat the Suns 128-117 on Friday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Western Conference.
“That was a little out of character for me,” Williamson said of the game-ending dunk, after which players and coaches from both teams swarmed around one another angrily as officials frantically stepped in to separate them.
“I got carried away a little bit. I admit that,” Williamson said. “But I was in that locker room when my brothers were down because the Suns sent us home (from the playoffs) last year. That’s a tough moment to be a part of. So, in that moment got carried away. I admit that.”
Williamson missed all of last season – his third in the NBA – with a foot injury and came into this campaign having missed more games in his career than he’d played. Lately, he’s resembled a dynamo, averaging 29.5 points during a six-game Pelicans winning streak – all while New Orleans star forward Brandon Ingram has been out with a foot injury.
Jose Alvarado came off the bench to add 20 points for New Orleans, which had to hold on in the opener of a two-game series after the Suns hit 15 of their 22 made 3-pointers in the second half to erase a 16-point Pelicans lead.
CJ McCollum had 18 points for the Pelicans, who have won six straight and 11 of 13, and afterward questioned the Suns’ indignance over Williamson’s dunk.
“They got to get back on defense if they don’t want us to dunk the ball,” McCollum said.
Before Pelicans coach Willie Green took his first head coaching job in New Orleans, he was Suns coach Monty Williams’ assistant, and they remain close friends.
Both coaches downplayed the heated exchanges.
“That stuff doesn’t bother me at all, man,” Williams said. “It’s part of basketball. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was a bunch of guys out there yelling and screaming and not even pushing. Just everybody trying to stand their ground.”
Green, who briefly had to be held back by assistant coaches, called it, “Just a little brush up. Nothing major.”
But Phoenix guard Cameron Payne explained why the Suns reacted angrily.
“There was just no sportsmanship and we don’t really like that,” Payne said. “We do the right thing. I felt like they should’ve done the right thing and they didn’t. We didn’t take it well.”
Larry Nance Jr. had 17 points and nine rebounds for New Orleans, while Jonas Valanciunas overcame a 4-of-16 shooting night to finish with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Deandre Ayton had 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 24 points for the Suns (16-10), who lost for the fourth time in five games to fall 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans (17-8) atop the Western Conference.
“This is not us,” Williams said. “We’re just giving up way too many points in the paint and in general. … I’ve got to get the guys in the game that are going to be physical and smart enough to handle the pressure that they give you in the paint.”
New Orleans led 85-69 when Naji Marshall hit the first of his two 3s in the second half, but Devin Booker and Damion Lee responded with back-to-back 3s and the Suns kept chipping away with accurate perimeter shooting.
Torrey Craig‘s 3 tied it at 105 and Payne’s deep 3 put Phoenix back in front 108-107.
But McCollum responded with a 3 and Williamson intercepted Booker’s pass and bolted the other way for a forceful one-handed dunk with 3:59 left. New Orleans did not trail again.
The game was a rematch of the first round of last season’s playoffs, which Phoenix won. Intensity was high and the crowd engaged from the outset, heartily booing Paul as he handled the ball on the opening possession.
“There’s tension there all the time,” Alvarado said. “Every game we play them is going to be physical, really locked in. . It’s always going to be a playoff game to us because we’re never going to let that go until we eliminate them.”
Alvarado scored 13 points in his first six minutes after coming off the bench, hitting three from deep in that stretch and also going 1-on-1 along the baseline against the 11-inch-taller Jock Landale and spun in a layup.