NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Lonzo Ball launched a long two-handed chest pass from one foul line to the other, where Zion Williamson caught it in stride above his head, took a step and dunked with two hands.
That play, less than three minutes into Friday night’s contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, seemed to symbolize the Pelicans’ playoff push being kicked into high gear.
Brandon Ingram scored 29 points, Williamson added 24, and New Orleans defeated Cleveland 116-104 on Friday night.
“It was crazy, like right before the game, I looked at Lonzo and said, ‘Lonzo, I’m running, so if you throw it, I’m going to catch it,'” Williamson recalled. “He took that literally, so he just started bombing them.”
Jrue Holiday scored 22 points and Derrick Favors grabbed 15 rebounds for the Pelicans, who held a double-digit lead for most of the game en route to their third victory in four games as they pursue the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
With 23 games left, New Orleans stood two games behind eighth-place Memphis, which lost 104-101 to Sacramento on Friday.
That’s a far cry from when a franchise-record 13-game skid dropped the Pelicans to 6-22 as they endured prolonged absences by Favors and Williamson.
“Things are only going to get better going from here,” said Ball, who finished with a game-high 12 assists. “We just got our team back, so hopefully we can make this playoff push.
“We still have time; that’s the great thing,” Ball added. “We kind of control our own destiny right now.”
Collin Sexton tied a career high with 31 points for Cleveland, which came in having won three of four under newly promoted head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Kevin Porter Jr. scored 16 and Darrius Garland 15 for the Cavs, who led just twice by two or fewer points in the first two minutes before falling behind for good.
“They have so many scorers out there, so many players that can create and so many players that are really good. It was tough just keeping them out of the paint,” Sexton said. “They move the ball so well and we were scrambling and running around.”
The Pelicans were up 93-70 after Ingram’s 3 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Sexton made three 3s during a 13-2 run that cut New Orleans’ lead to 12 by the end of the period.
Williamson, Ingram and Holiday checked back in to start the fourth, and the Pelicans promptly went on a 10-2 run — ignited by 3s by E’Twaun Moore and Holiday — to push their lead back to 20.
“It’s fun to see everybody’s hard work paying off,” Ingram said. “For us to share the ball and get our assist numbers up and find the rhythm of our offense, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson scored 13 points and Kevin Love scored 10. … Attempted 31 3-pointers, missing 20. … Shot 45.3% (43 of 95). … Scored 56 points in the paint.
Pelicans: Moore and Nicolo Melli each scored 10 points. … Williamson eclipsed 20 points for the 12th time in just 15 career NBA games. … New Orleans outrebounded Cleveland 49-34. … Shot 54.5% (48 of 88), including 9 of 23 from 3-point range. … Combined for 36 assists. … Scored 72 points in the paint. … Jaxson Hayes revved up the crowd with a pair of thunderous dunks, one on an alley-oop and the other a reverse on a fast-break feed from Ingram.
Aided by Ball’s first five assists, the Pelicans raced to a 21-point, first-quarter lead when Josh Hart’s transition 3 made it 43-22.
The lead reached 22 in the second quarter when Ingram’s finger roll made it 64-42.
“This team is explosive,” Bickerstaff said of the Pelicans. “They got ball-skill players. They got athletes. They’ve got a really talented team and I think they’re going to put a lot of pressure on people down the stretch.”
Cleveland could have fallen farther behind if not for Sexton, whose 19 first-half points on an array of driving layups and jumpers helped trim the Cavaliers’ deficit to 13 before Ingram’s dunk gave New Orleans a 70-55 lead going into halftime.
Cavaliers: Host Indiana on Saturday night, hoping to avoid their first two-game skid since Bickerstaff took over following John Beilein’s resignation on Feb. 19.
Pelicans: Host the Lakers on Sunday night, just six days after LeBron James scored 40 in a 118-109 victory over New Orleans in Los Angeles.
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