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Zion Williamson’s season-high 36 points power Pelicans past Timberwolves, 121-107

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

BY BRETT MARTEL contributing

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson’s road to redemption for his tepid showing in the NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals began against a team with the league’s best record.

He rose to the challenge, to say the least.

Williamson scored a season-high 36 points, CJ McCollum added nine of his 23 points in the fourth quarter on three timely 3-pointers, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 121-107 on Monday night.

“I can’t just take a back seat or kind of be too laid back,” Williamson said. “So, my thought process was to be aggressive. My teammates trust me.”

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The game was a character test for the Pelicans, coming off their 133-89 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in Las Vegas on Thursday night.

“That was a bad performance. It doesn’t take rocket science to see that,” Williamson said. “We kind of went into the game too lackadaisical. There was no focus, there was no effort. … That wasn’t a good moment for us.”

Williamson, meanwhile, was the object of ridicule by some national NBA analysts after he scored 13 points on eight shots and finished with just three rebounds against the Lakers. Some said he appeared out of shape and others said he failed to raise his intensity level in the face of a LeBron James-led squad that appeared far more motivated.

“If it comes from a great place and a place where they just want to see me do better, thank you,” Williamson said of the criticism. “But if it comes from anywhere else, everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. You can’t control that.”

“It’s been like that since I was 16 years old,” Williamson added. “If I want to be one of the best players in the league, if we don’t win in a big moment or something bad happens, that’s to be expected. I’m just glad we responded.”

Against the T-Wolves, Williamson repeatedly scored on forceful drives to the basket, often finishing high off the glass to beat the long reach of Minnesota center Rudy Gobert.

“Tough finishes over the best shot-blocking big in the NBA,” McCollum said of Williamson’s touch around the basket. “This is the No. 1 defense in the NBA, so does it get harder than that?”

Williamson’s highlights included a double-pump floater off the glass from left of the lane as he was fouled by Jaden McDaniels to make it 109-94 with 4:51 left. It was Williamson’s third game this season with more than 30 points. He made 13 of 17 shots and 10 of 12 free throws.

“He was sharp, he was aggressive, he was very assertive, he was locked in,” McCollum said. “He’s doing a great job responding well to a lot of criticism around him.”

The Wolves played without leading scorer Anthony Edwards, who left Friday night’s win at Memphis with a right hip pointer.

Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves with 17 points and 12 rebounds, but he fouled out with 2:35 left and his team trailing by 14. Mike Conley and Naz Reid each scored 17 points for Minnesota, which had won nine of its previous 10 games.

Brandon Ingram scored 20 points and Jonas Valanciunas had 14 points and 13 rebounds for New Orleans, which won for the first time in three games against Minnesota this season.

It took Minnesota nearly four minutes to make its first basket of the fourth quarter. It came on Conley’s 3, which trimmed New Orleans’ lead to 99-89.

Minnesota briefly got as close as 99-91 before Williamson hit a driving layup and Ingram hit a turnaround as he was fouled to make it 104-91. The Wolves didn’t threaten after that.

Williamson “was just being a force tonight, playing downhill and getting into the paint,” Timberwolves guard Jordan McLaughlin said.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum each had at least 10 points in the first half, and Ingram hit a 31-foot bank shot at the halftime horn to give New Orleans a 59-52 lead.

McLaughlin hit a half-court swish at the third-quarter horn.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: Visit Dallas on Thursday night.