Zion Williamson was glued to the bench as the Pelicans lost a crucial game in the bubble because he wasn't allowed to play any more minutes

Zion Williamson.Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
  • Zion Williamson sat the final 7 minutes as the New Orleans Pelicans blew a lead and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first game of the NBA bubble.
  • After the game, Pelicans coach said Zion Williamson had hit his minutes limit and wasn't allowed back in.
  • The Pelicans' cautious handling of Williamson has raised debates about managing risk vs. playing to win and how to allocate limited minutes.
  • The Pelicans are four games out of the playoffs, with seven games to play, and three teams ahead of them.

Zion Williamson played only a minor role in the New Orleans Pelicans' 106-104 loss to the Utah Jazz in the opening game of the bubble.

The Pelicans led for much of the way and by double-figures for portions, but the lead slipped away in the fourth quarter as their offense went cold. Meanwhile, the Jazz offense continually got to the basket for easy shots.

Williamson went to the bench with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter with the Pelicans leading 93-89. He wasn't seen from again, even in the final minutes, when the Pelicans could have used his offense and playmaking.Advertisement

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters after the game that Williamson had his minutes limit for the night, and he wasn't allowed to play him anymore.

"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," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.

"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."
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Zion Williamson played just 15 minutes on Thursday.Ashley Landis, Pool/AP Images
Williamson was set to play sporadic minutes, as he only recently re-entered the bubble after leaving for a personal issue. He was questionable before the game to make sure his conditioning was where it needed to be before his first official game in four-plus months.

Yet the messaging on his minutes also seemed to change. Yahoo's Chris Haynes reported before the game that a Pelicans source said Williamson wouldn't be on a minutes limit, so much as he'd be limited to short bursts of playing time.Williamson ended up playing just 15 minutes. He was a -16 in those minutes, but he had nonetheless posed a matchup problem for the Jazz, scoring at will around the rim. Many thought putting the undersized Williamson at center to close the game would have opened up the Pelicans offense.Advertisement

Williamson's minutes restrictions raise a debate in the sports world

Sports science has ruled the day with the Pelicans handling of Williamson. In Williamson's highly anticipated debut in January, his first game back from a knee injury, he lit up the San Antonio Spurs with 17 straight points in the fourth quarter. He ended up sitting the final five minutes because he had hit his minutes limit, and the team's medical staff wouldn't budge. The Pelicans would go on to lose that game by four points.

The philosophy on Williamson's minutes raises a debate within the sports world: calculating injury risk vs. going for the win.

Sports science has ruled the day with the Pelicans. They have been cautious with the star rookie, who at 20, has had two relatively serious knee injuries in two years, between college and the NBA. They haven't risked the long-term for the short term.Advertisement

But Thursday's minutes restriction has also raised the debate over how to handle those minutes. Some felt that the Pelicans using up Williamson's 15 minutes before the end of the game was poor management.

Of course, there's no guarantee ahead of time that there will be crunchtime. Playing Williamson fewer minutes, then not having to use him at all complicates the human aspect of it.

Williamson said he wanted to play, but also needs to get his "flow" back, saying he wouldn't want to hurt the team while he was out there.Advertisement

What matters is that the Pelicans blew a winnable game that could drastically hurt their playoff chances. The Pelicans are now 28-37, four games back of the Memphis Grizzlies.

There will be a play-in game for the playoffs if four games or fewer separate the 8th seed and the 9th seed. The Pelicans are still within striking range, but they'll need to the Grizzlies to lose more games than they win, and for teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs to also lose, so that the Pelicans can grab the ninth seed.

The Pelicans have seven games remaining, and it's unclear when Williamson will be allowed to play freely.Advertisement

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