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Why did Zion Williamson sit out final seconds of Pelicans’ loss?

Kurt Helin explains why Portland should feel confident in its chances to at least reach the play-in round of the NBA's restart and shares why he believes New Orleans needs to play Zion Williamson as much as possible.

After Rudy Gobert his a pair of free throws to put the Jazz ahead 106-104, the Pelicans had 6.9 seconds to get off a shot that would either tie the game or get them the win with a three.

The Pelicans are in a sprint to make the playoffs. Those final seconds are when you need your closer on the court.

Zion Williamson is New Orlean’s closer.

Coach Alvin Gentry had him glued to the bench in those seconds.

From the second Brandon Ingram’s isolation three rimed out and the Pelicans suffered a painful loss to start their sprint to try and make the playoffs, there was a lot of second-guessing of Gentry’s decision to have Zion Williamson sit out that play.

Williamson was on a minutes limit for the game due to “re-conditioning” and Gentry had chosen to use those minutes at the start of each quarter.

Gentry said postgame he could not put Zion back in for those seven seconds.

“Of course we wish we could’ve played him down the stretch, but we used the minutes that were given to us, and that’s the way it is. We weren’t going to stick him back out there. The medical people said we played them in the minutes that were allowed for us to play him, and just move on. I thought he looked good, I thought he had some good moments, and obviously we’re a much better and different team when he’s out on the floor.”

Seven seconds. This wasn’t running Zion back out there for four minutes to end the game (although an argument could be made if Zion can only play three or four minutes a quarter to save some of those for the end of the game). This was one play.

That play ended up being a red-hot J.J. Redick coming off a triple pin-down and popping open at the top of the arc — which he did. The final screen by Derrick Favors kept Joe Ingles from switching out on to Redick long enough to get him the ball for a shot. Instead, Brandon Ingram held onto the ball and took the isolation wing three — and it wasn’t a terrible shot. It just wasn’t the best option. It rimmed out.

The Pelicans didn’t just lose because of that play and shot. Their interior defense was dreadful all night long (the Jazz had 56 points in the paint and had their way inside), and the Pelicans turned the ball over 20 times (one in five trips down the court). New Orleans has been terrible in clutch games all season long (7-18 in games within three points in the final two minutes before the restart). No one thing costs a team a game.

That loss hurts the Pelicans playoff push, moving them four games back of Memphis and half-a-game behind Portland and Sacramento (who have yet to play in the restart). Next up for the Pelicans is an elite Clippers squad on Saturday, a very tough test, after which the schedule softens up. The Pelicans are certainly not out of the playoff chase, but in this eight-game sprint they stumbled out of the blocks and now face the real possibility of going 0-2 to open the restart.

Which is why it’s hard not to wonder: Would Zion on the floor, with his gravity rolling to the rim and drawing defenders, with his ability to finish inside, have gotten the Pelicans a better shot?

We’ll never know.

But we should have found out.