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New Orleans' unexpected playoff push is in the hands of its youth

Zion Williamson in action earlier in the season

This was meant to be a rebuilding year for the New Orleans Pelicans, a chance to give their young talents some experience en route back to the NBA draft lottery.

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Highlights of the Cleveland Cavaliers' trip to the New Orleans Pelicans in Week 19 of the NBA

The trouble is, no one told their players.

After a demoralising 6-22 start with No 1 pick Zion Williamson recovering from knee surgery, the Pelicans are now just two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the Western Conference Playoffs.

With just 13 NBA games under his belt, Williamson is hitting his stride while his minutes restriction appears to be loosening.

The No 1 pick from Duke University played nearly 33 minutes on Friday in a home win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 29 points. His remarkable 57 per cent shooting this season is aided by the precision passing of his point guard Lonzo Ball.

Less than three minutes into Friday night's contest, the team-mates connected on a play that seemed to symbolise the Pelicans' playoff push being kicked into high gear.

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Josh Hart (L,), Zion Williamson, and Lonzo Ball (R) of the New Orleans Pelicans  took on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday
Image: Josh Hart (L,), Zion Williamson, and Lonzo Ball (R) of the New Orleans Pelicans took on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday

Ball launched a long two-handed chest pass from one foul line to the other, where Williamson caught it in stride above his head, took a step and dunked with two hands.

"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."

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Williamson finished with 24 points and All Star team-mate Brandon Ingram had 29 in the convincing 116-104 victory.

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.

With 23 games left, New Orleans are playing in a manner that did not seem possible as they endured prolonged absences by Favors and Williamson earlier in the season.

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"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.

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"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."

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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."

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