The Pelicans have been exercising caution this summer with Williamson, who left the Walt Disney World campus in July and has been seeing his minutes gradually increase over the last week. Friday’s game is the second half of a back-to-back set, after Zion logged 22 minutes on Thursday vs. Sacramento.
While it’s not a major surprise that New Orleans is playing it safe with its most valuable long-term building block, Friday’s game is essentially a must-win if the Pelicans want to keep pace in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. They’re currently two games behind Portland for the No. 9 seed and 2.5 games back of the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, with just four to play.
Of course, with or without Williamson in the lineup, the Pelicans will be favored over the Wizards, who are 0-4 during the restart and will be the first of the 22 teams in Orlando eliminated from postseason contention if they lose tonight. And while the sample size is small, it’s worth noting that the Pelicans have been a much better team through the four seeding games with Zion off the court (+5.2 net rating) than on it (-22.8).
After tonight, the Pelicans will have crucial matchups on tap with the Spurs (Sunday) and Kings (Tuesday) before finishing their summer slate next Thursday vs. Orlando. It may take a 4-0 record down the stretch for New Orleans to keep its season alive and qualify for a play-in tournament.