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Another setback for Zion at precipice of redemption

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Zion Williamson and the Pelicans came so close to exorcising their demons.

The only NBA team that failed to win a game this season when trailing after three quarters, New Orleans erased an 18-point second-half deficit Tuesday to find itself tied with Los Angeles in the game's final minutes. But second-half deficits weren't the bogeyman Williamson and the Pelicans were trying to slay.

Overcoming the Lakers would've been a mammoth stepping stone. Forget that New Orleans finished two games ahead of Los Angeles. Since prying Anthony Davis from The Big Easy five years ago, the Lakers have now won 13 of 19 against the Pelicans. Davis, who won a championship in his first season with L.A., has often feasted on his large yet overmatched former team.

Williamson, drafted No. 1 overall days after New Orleans traded Davis, entered this season having played only 114 games (and zero playoff games) over his first four years because of various knee, foot, and leg injuries.

The Lakers led throughout Tuesday, but Williamson's tireless work kept the Pelicans in the game. In a postseason setting featuring Davis and LeBron James, Zion was the best player on the court, scoring 40 points on 17-of-27 (63%) shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, five assists, a steal, and a block.

Redemption was at hand.

Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBA / Getty Images

A victory would have bookended New Orleans' lowest point of the season. With all eyes on a Dec. 7 semifinal against the Lakers during the In-Season Tournament, the Pelicans were run off the court in a 133-89 demolition. Observers were quick to bask in the team's humiliation, after barely acknowledging New Orleans to start the year. No Pelican was lambasted like Williamson, who took only eight shots in 26 minutes.

After dealing with criticisms of his body and conditioning throughout his career, the injury-prone star was the easiest target. Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley had their usual postgame field day on TNT. Citing multiple team sources, The Times-Picayune's Christian Clark reported after the December defeat that the "Pelicans have repeatedly stressed to Williamson that his diet and conditioning need to improve," but "Williamson 'doesn’t listen.'" Days after saying Williamson "looks fat," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith added that New Orleans-area chefs love the big man because "the word out on Williamson is that he'll eat the table."

Rather than wallow in self-pity, Williamson and the Pelicans responded with four months of mostly excellent basketball.

While less consistently explosive, Williamson refined his game on both ends. Most importantly, he stayed healthy, and New Orleans surged. Over a 59-game sample after the tournament loss, the Pels posted the league's sixth-best record, fourth-ranked defense, and eighth-ranked offense. They finished the season with the Association's sixth-best point differential, and their 49 wins represented New Orleans' highest total in 15 years.

A spring slide that coincided with Brandon Ingram's knee injury relegated the Pelicans to play-in territory and another matchup with the Lakers. But if ever there was a season Williamson and company appeared ready to put the past behind them, this was it. And through nearly 45 minutes of action Tuesday, redemption was within reach.

Williamson carried the Pelicans' offense with Ingram still seeing limited action and CJ McCollum floundering. Zion willed his way to the rim against a Lakers defense daring him to shoot. Between his scoring and playmaking, Williamson accounted for exactly half of the Pelicans' 106 points. On the other end, he banged with a struggling Davis in the post and moved his feet to stick with James.

Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

But as he elevated over Davis to drain a floater that tied the game with 3:19 remaining, Williamson grimaced, coming down with an apparent left leg injury. Moments later, the frustrated star headed to the locker room and never returned. The Lakers escaped with a four-point victory to set up a first-round matchup with the defending champion Nuggets. The Pelicans will have to beat Sacramento without Zion to salvage a playoff berth from what finally looked like a season of promise.

A potential first-round series against No. 1 Oklahoma City may have been preferable with Williamson healthy, but it's hard to find any silver lining now. What should've been the 23-year-old's signature moment - an inspiring performance that would've had his loudest critics eating crow - instead only brought more questions about his durability and force of will. TNT's postgame coverage included O'Neal commenting that Zion should've pushed through the pain. It was all too familiar.

Williamson and the Pelicans came so close to exorcising their proverbial demons. At this point, the snakebitten franchise and its much-maligned star must feel like only a real-life exorcism will do.

Joseph Casciaro is theScore's senior content producer.

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