It hardly lived up to the one-time billing of what was supposed to mark Zion Williamson’s professional debut at the Garden, especially coming against his former Duke teammate and Knicks lottery pick RJ Barrett.
Instead, it was just another blah game between two bad NBA teams trying to find their way, with the Knicks extending their latest losing streak to five with a 123-111 home loss Friday night to the Pelicans.
Brandon Ingram scored 17 of his game-high 28 points in the first half, while Lonzo Ball finished with 15 points with 11 assists for New Orleans (14-25).
Taj Gibson, who was averaging just 4.5 points per game despite making 29 starts this season, led the Knicks with a season-high 19 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting, along with eight rebounds. Without leading scorers Julius Randle (personal reasons, second straight game) and Marcus Morris (neck, third), the Knicks also received 15 points apiece from veterans Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton.
Barrett missed five of his first six shots and scored just three points in the first half — before finishing with 16 on 5-for-15 from the floor — as the Knicks failed to record a home victory after going 0-4 on their recent western swing.
“The schedule’s what the schedule is. You approach it that way,” interim coach Mike Miller said before the game. “You have to get ready to play. We talked this morning with our group, this is one of the opportunities that we have. We need to be ready. We need to be bounce back. Every time we go out we tell them we want this to be our best day.”
Williamson still is working toward getting ready for his NBA debut following October surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, but he appears to be getting closer to a return to the court.
After exchanging hugs with Barrett, Zion showed off his legendary athleticism by throwing down a between-the-legs jam during pregame warm-ups.
“No, it won’t be tonight,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said before the game regarding Williamson’s pending debut. “Come back in this city? Come on man, are you kidding me? Who would do that? That’s all the pressure in the world coming back in this city.”
Gentry added that whenever Williamson returns, it will be on some type of minutes-restriction.
“He’s making progress, and I think he’s practicing and playing five-on-five,” he said. “We’re trying to gauge exactly when it would be a good situation to put him out there. But even when we do, it’s going to be very limited minutes to start, as everybody would assume that it would.”
Without the No. 1 overall draft pick all season, the Pelicans are just four games better than the Knicks in the standings, including a 13-game losing streak bridging November and December.
Still, with the Knicks even more undermanned than usual, New Orleans led by as many as 11 in the first half, before carrying a 67-61 lead into intermission.
A dunk and a free throw by Barrett drew the Knicks within one point early in the third, but an 18-8 Pelicans run restored the 11-point cushion. E’Twaun Moore layup barely two minutes into the final quarter extended the Knicks’ deficit to 13. New Orleans pulled away from there, leading by as many as 18 in the closing minutes.