NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson’s authoritative, two-handed dunk as he was fouled by Boston guard Kemba Walker gave an appreciative crowd its first taste of how effectively the New Orleans Pelicans can close out games with the NBA’s top draft choice on the court.
Williamson had 21 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes, and the Pelicans beat the Celtics 123-108 on Sunday for their first victory in three games since the rookie star joined the lineup.
The game also marked the first time the Pelicans permitted Williamson to play late in the fourth quarter. He scored eight points in the final three minutes as New Orleans pulled away.
“I felt helpless the last two games not being able to help my team in the fourth quarter,” Williamson said. “Being able to close it out tonight felt good.”
As did his first win, he said, adding: “The first of many, hopefully.”
Jrue Holiday had 25 points, JJ Redick scored 17 and Brandon Ingram added 16 for New Orleans, which snapped a two-game slide. Lonzo Ball’s career-high 15 assists included a long lob to Williamson for an alley-oop layup and an alley-oop pass that Williamson dunked on a sideline inbounds play.
“He’s an easy target to get the ball to,” Ball said of the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson. “He’s also mobile, so I can give to him on the run, post-up, pick-and-roll; he can do a lot of different things with the basketball.”
Williamson played his most minutes yet since completing his rehabilitation from arthroscopic knee surgery performed the day before the regular season opened. He had played the first five or so minutes of each quarter in his first two games, but the Pelicans made an adjustment to his fourth-quarter usage to allow the ex-Duke star to be on the court for the final minutes against Boston.
“He’s special,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s hard with him at (power forward) to match up anybody with him, and then at (center) he’s so quick, he got multiple points on layups off of second shots and second bounce.”
Walker scored 35 points, Gordon Hayward had 23 and Jaylen Brown 20 for the Celtics, who fell behind for good in the first quarter and trailed by as many as 23 in the third.
Boston hit just 16 of its first 43 shots — including 3-of-17 shooting from 3-point range — during the first half. New Orleans took advantage, opening a 62-42 lead by halftime.
Seven Pelicans players combined for 10 3-pointers in the opening half, with Ingram, Holiday and Ball each hitting two.
New Orleans led 69-46 early in the third quarter and was still up by 18 when Williamson soared to the rim over Boston’s Vincent Poirier to slam back Redick’s missed 3.
Soon after, Walker hit a 3 and added free throws during a 7-0 mini-run that pulled Boston to 87-79.
In the fourth quarter, Josh Hart and Redick missed consecutive breakaway layups and then Marcus Smart scored inside while being fouled by Williamson to cut it to 97-91. But Redick followed with a 3 and Williamson scored on a drive from the top of the key to make it 102-91 with 8:20 to go.
Boston struggled to stay within 10 after that.
Celtics: F Jayson Tatum was inactive because of an illness and right groin strain. … C Enes Kanter missed his second straight game with a bruised right hip. … Daniel Theis scored 15 points. … The Celtics shot 8 of 33 from 3-point range.
Pelicans: Outrebounded Boston 54-37. … Went 16 for 36 on 3-pointers, with Holiday hitting four while Redick and Ingram made three apiece. … Won convincingly despite missing 10 of 29 free throws and committing 20 turnovers. … Williamson committed four turnovers and missed five of eight free throws.
HONORING No. 24
After New Orleans won the opening tip, Ball dribbled across halfcourt and held the ball to let the 24-second shot clock expire in honor of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who died earlier Sunday in a helicopter crash in California at age 41.
Bryant wore No. 24, and the gesture was not lost on fans who began chanting, “Kobe, Kobe.”
Ball, a former Lakers player, said he struggled with sadness over Bryant’s death, “not only in that moment, but the whole day. I’m glad we got the win, but it doesn’t feel right.”
Walker also ran down the shot clock on Boston’s first possession — an idea that Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry had presented to Stevens. Other teams around the NBA did the same.
“Alvin walked into my office and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Stevens said. “And I said, ‘Sounds great.’”
Williamson said he had a Bryant jersey with the No. 8 he wore early in his career as well as one with No. 24 — but never got a chance to meet him.
He said playing shortly after learning of Bryant’s death was difficult.
“I couldn’t focus at first,” Williamson said. “One of the greatest taken away too soon. His impact will forever be a part of this game. He’s a legend. Legends never die, so he’ll forever be remembered.”