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Pelicans top Celtics 120-115 in overtime behind historic comeback

The 24-point turnaround in the final 18 minutes marked the largest comeback victory in Pelicans history as they stalled the Celtics offense late and plunged Boston back to .500.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The second half of Pelicans-Celtics was unrecognizable from the first. Jaylen Brown found success putting his head dow through the abysmal Pelicans defense and finding teammates. Zion Williamson went into halftime with next to no impact on the game against a packed Cs front line. Boston built a 24-point lead into the third quarter that no Pels team had overcome. Both teams awaited overtime 24 minutes later.

Against a bottom-five fourth quarter team in the Boston Celtics (-6.4 net rating), New Orleans made history. Scoring 50 points in 18 minutes to take a lead with 30 seconds remaining, Brown put his head down again, unsuccessfully reaching the basket needing one point for victory.

An official review reversed possession back to Boston and Tatum danced around Josh Hart’s defense at the free throw line for a pull-up and the lead. Zion, more simply bumped twice to break through 238-pound Tristan Thompson for the go-ahead score and the foul. Tatum had six seconds to force an extra five minutes, in a pressure position unthinkable two quarters earlier. He got forced left into the lane, Daniel Theis couldn’t secure a clean screen, so Hart stayed tight to Tatum as he had all second half and forced him to float a difficult right-hand floater over his head.

It flushed through the net with 0.2 seconds remaining — saving Boston only momentarily. A double-lane violation to cap overtime on Ingram’s go-ahead free throw attempt created an open look for himself from Zion for the win after a jump ball at center court, completing the epic turnaround with 31 points. Hart slowed Tatum all afternoon, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and three blocks.

The Robert Williams effect is becoming undeniable as he posts his best stats of his three-year career in slightly expanded minutes. He started overtime and closed the fourth quarter in New Orleans after being strictly a bench player for the first half of the season. The Celtics drew a set lob to him from Theis to begin the overtime period. He blocked Ingram at the three point line.

His help defense in the lane nearly stopped him again as he drove to the rim down 112-111. Zion sat attached at his hip, holding Rob long enough to draw free throws for Ingram. Ingram hit the first, then Theis and the left side of the line jumped into the lane, triggering a jump ball at 112-112 between Williams and Zion that the latter secured and took to the basket to create a game-winning three.

Rob’s second quarter burst of block, steals and rim-running powered the Celtics to a double-digit lead they never gave up in Friday’s win over the Hawks. Boston outscored opponents by 31 points per 100 possessions when Williams is on the floor coming into Sunday — the turnaround evident when the Celtics turn around slow starts into their active bench unit.

That happened again on Sunday after the Pelicans hit 5-of-6 against the double big unit. Lonzo Ball drilled a pair of jumpers and peppered the ball around to Ingram and Willy Hernangomez, who started in place of Steven Adams. New Orleans shot ahead 11-2 and Brad Stevens called timeout, then leaned on bench players like Aaron Nesmith and Williams for much of the afternoon.

Despite slow starts and poor analytics, the return of Theis on Friday rendered the “double big” unit a mainstay for the foreseeable future. Marcus Smart is out until after the all star break and Stevens wants to funnel bench minutes to Rob alone inside. Today, Stevens said pregame, was one of the first games all season he didn’t overthink where he’d start, as the C’s have funneled through 16 different lineups to open games.

Brown created nine straight points for Boston out of timeout powering downhill, and that bench started rotating into a 19-19 game. Brown hit Semi Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard for jumpers, then tossed a ball high for Williams that he threw down after Nesmith forced a turnover on defense. Boston forced 11 turnovers in the first half and following the Williams thunder from above, Thompson met him at half court and mimicked the flush over his head.

Williams’ steady rise into year three continues to emerge on unstable ground. His right hip condition has bothered him occasionally and forced him to miss two games, possibly limiting his minutes. Three of Boston’s top seven players are centers, Stevens said, so that further limits his ability to play for extended runs.

The energy and impact he has on the game is undeniable though, as Stevens staggers him against opposing bench units. On Sunday with Boston’s jump shooting stagnating at 39.8%, Williams was needed often in the second half to find other outlets for offense.

He’s also a shot blocker with a 7’5” wingspan that disrupts passing lanes inside. His verticality on lobs is nearly unmatched in the NBA, constantly putting pressure on defenses that need to respect his rolls as much as the elite pull-up potential Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown display around his screens. Out of timeout in the first, Williams sent Ingram stumbling backward out of bounds dizzy on a block that flew back in his face into a turnover.

Williams’ passing also impacts the game. While he has no post game or ability to possess the ball in the post as a threat, his ability to move the offense through the middle as an outlet passer creates shots like Nesmith’s three to begin the second quarter.

Concerns that limited his involvement in the playoffs in spite of the positives — pick-and-pop coverage, positioning, fouling, turnovers and lack of floor spacing — are waning compared to overwhelming winning plays. Those are a major Stevens playing time criteria, so 20 minutes have flowed toward Timelord for only the fourth time this season.

Stevens’ primary trust remains in Thompson, improving with 9.5 PPG back to the west coast trip, and Theis as the pair build on the chemistry they’ve had to develop on the fly without training camp. Theis is focusing more on spacing, shooting 39% from three, and high post activity. Thompson explained their offensive dynamic in complex terms on Friday, discussing an array of options and rolling patterns they follows to allow each other space.

Defensively, they packed the paint and held Zion to 1-of-5 shooting for his worst first half performance of the season. He walked to the locker with four points, blocked at one point with Theis fronting him and Thompson smacking the ball away from behind. Brown scored 13 points with five rebounds and six assists to build a 63-47 lead by halftime.

It didn’t take Zion long to find his left hand finish, powering through Theis seconds into the third quarter. Walker and Tatum followed with a 10-2 run, before Thompson scored four straight that extended Boston’s lead to 24. Williams rotated back in, the game seemingly in hand, and rose nearly 13 feet into the air according to ESPN’s tracking system to throw down an alley-oop from Brown.

New Orleans started its comeback push with five free throws, holding the Celtics scoreless by piling stops through a Williams illegal screen, turnovers and slowly turned up their pace. Zion hit two shots to end the quarter and the Pelicans had an 11-3 run.

Zion, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Hart kept attacking the rim to expose the C’s paint defense that’s been susceptible to allowing dribble penetration all year. Hart’s three point play through Tatum pulled the Pelicans within eight points less than three minutes into the final frame on a 28-12 run. Redick, rolling a ball toward an official dismayed over a call, got ejected and gave Tatum a point back at the free throw line.

The Pels pushed on with a 7-0 burst through Zion on the drive. His free throws with 6:49 left made it 93-90. Brandon Ingram tied the game nearly three minutes later on a pull-up three, putting the Pelicans in position for their biggest comeback win in franchise history.

Stevens leaned on Williams and Nesmith as the Boston defensive effort waned midway through the fourth. Pairing Williams and Theis, who had hurt his ankle on a chase down block, paid off when Williams caught a miss by Theis and fed Tatum for a game-tying three at 101. Hart peppered Tatum, while Ball chased Walker all over the floor as the Cs stars sputtered to 22-of-68 shooting.

Williams and Brown made Boston’s only field goals in a 12-7 overtime loss, plunging the Celtics back to .500 and into scrutiny now one month removed from their last back-to-back wins.

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