Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson had just suffered a tough overtime loss to the Knicks — the Pelicans’ third straight. And the players were just chewed out by their head coach Stan Van Gundy for botching the final play of regulation while on defense.
But Williamson couldn’t help but crack a broad smile that could light up Broadway when asked what it was like playing his first NBA game at the Garden. Last season, Williamson had knee issues for the preseason and regular-season Garden matchups.
Williamson finished with 34 points in the loss, slightly getting the better of Julius Randle in the battle of power-forward heavyweights.
“I’m glad you asked that,’’ Williamson said, grinning. “New York is the mecca of basketball. I love playing here. I played here in college [at Duke]. This is my first time playing in the pros. This atmosphere, whether they’re cheering for you or booing you, it’s amazing. Outside of New Orleans, obviously, this might be my favorite place to play. I can’t lie to you.’’
Williamson is a restricted free agent in 2023. Though only 2,000 fans are allowed at the Garden during the pandemic, Williamson received a mixture of cheers and boos during intros.
His words harkened back to before the 2019 draft when Williamson came in with Duke to play Texas Tech at the Garden and remarked he would love to see the Knicks win the lottery. The Pelicans did, however, and Williamson began his career in the Big Easy — a town known for Bourbon Street and football.
Regardless, the 6-foot-6 power forward is one of the faces of the NBA and took it to the Knicks. His 34 points were a lot more efficient than Randle’s 33, but the win went to the Knicks for the second time in four days.
Dominating the paint and throwing down a couple of vicious alley-oop dunks and one driving jam on his own, Williamson shot 13 of 23 from the field. Though he didn’t hit any of his 3-pointers, he made 8 of 11 free throws, had five assists and nine rebounds. One of the game’s highlights was throwing down a half-court alley-oop pass from Lonzo Ball, a free agent this summer.
“He’s a tough matchup,’’ Randle said afterward. “We know he’s athletic. He’s long, nimble on his feet, quick so he gets to a lot of balls and offensive rebounds you wouldn’t think he’d get to. He gets to those balls. He’s a tough cover and finishes around the rim well, too.’’
Randle’s 33 points came on just 12 of 28 shooting as he went scoreless in the first quarter, missing his first six shots. Randle had 10 assists but four turnovers.
Randle is the first Knick to score 30-plus points in four straight games since Carmelo Anthony in 2014. He also was a plus-14 while Williamson was a minus-13.
“Playing against great players brings out the best of each other,” Williamson said. “But I just care about the win.’’
Williamson left briefly late in the fourth quarter and was attended to by trainers. Williamson said it was “cramps.’’
He’s now 0-2 against the Knicks.
“New York is a very physical team,’’ Williamson said.
Need Your Help Today. Your $1 can change life.