NEW ORLEANS — With the mercurial Lonzo Ball looking more engaged, aggressive and accurate from the perimeter, the New Orleans Pelicans looked as capable against elite competition as they have all season.
Ball highlighted a season-best 27-point performance with seven 3-pointers and the Pelicans held off a furious Milwaukee rally to beat the Bucks 131-126 on Friday night.
“It’s just about staying aggressive and staying true to the work I put in,” said Ball, who also had eight assists. “I knew it was going to turn around sooner or later.”
Now the question is whether the Pelicans can sustain it.
“It’s just a lot more fluid, a lot more guys in rhythm and we get better quality shots,” Ball said. “So, we got to kind of use tonight as a blueprint.”
Brandon Ingram scored 28 points, and Zion Williamson had 21 points, nine rebounds and a career-best seven assists to help New Orleans prevent the Bucks from erasing a 28-point deficit during the game’s final 17 minutes.
“I never felt like the win was in doubt,” Williamson said. “We responded well. … When everybody is playing with high confidence, it’s great for the team and it gives us multiple scoring threats.”
Eric Bledsoe also hit seven 3s and scored 25 for the Pelicans, who combined to make 21 from deep. Steven Adams grabbed a season-high 20 rebounds.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 38 points and 11 rebounds, and former Pelican Jrue Holiday scored 22 for Milwaukee, which trailed nearly the entire game, usually by double-digits.
“Hats off to them. They were hitting everything and from 3,” Holiday said. “Contested shots, open shots, just were making shots. They came to play.”
The Pelicans appeared firmly in control when Ball’s jumper made it 93-65 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
“I do think the first 30 minutes of the game showed the possibilities at least of what we can be,” Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Granted, we were making a lot of shots. But for 30 minutes, we even guarded pretty well. Then we didn’t guard at all in the last 18 minutes.”
Khris Middleton’s turnaround jumper began a head-spinning 20-3 Milwaukee run during a span of 3:08 late in the third period. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 and capped the surge with a spinning dribble for a layup while he was fouled.
“I kind of like the way we came out in the second half,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were hungry and it’s a thing that we’ve got to do for a longer period of the game.”
Milwaukee’s deficit was down to single digits when Pat Connaughton’s layup made it 98-89, but the Pelicans scored the last five points of the quarter, including Nicolo Melli’s 3 as the period ended, to stem the tide.
After that, the Pelicans kept their lead around 10 points until less than two minutes remained.
The Pelicans, who came in having won just two of their last 10 games, shot 57.1% in the first 24 minutes, including 12 of 21 from 3-point range. They led 47-28 after Nickeil Alexander-Walker made a layup over Brook Lopez and high off the glass, then intercepted Antetokounmpo’s pass and drove straight back in for a dunk.
Bledsoe, who came to New Orleans as part of a multiple-team trade sending Holiday to Milwaukee, hit five of his first six 3-point shots and had 17 points before halftime.
Pelicans reserve guard Josh Hart made all four of his shots in the second quarter, three from deep.
The Bucks struggled just to make open shots in the first half, hitting 37%, while also turning the ball over eight times.
Middleton finished with 16 points, as did Lopez, while Donte DiVincenzo had 10 points.
The approximately 1,400 fans in attendance bellowed a familiar, elongated “Jruuuuue,” when Holiday was introduced as a Milwaukee starter. It was the same way fans in New Orleans greeted Holiday during the previous seven seasons.
During an early timeout, a tribute was shown on the video board honoring Holiday’s play and community service while he was in New Orleans. He and his wife, former international soccer star Lauren Holiday, notably donated more than $5 million to support Black-owned businesses seeking help during the pandemic. The video drew enthusiastic applause.
“If there’s one thing I know about New Orleans, it’s that they love the players that embrace the city and try to make this home for them,” Holiday said. “That’s what I tried to do. I love the city.”