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Williamson powers Pelicans to rout of Raptors

Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans Zion Williamson - The Canadian Press

Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic had recently pulled Javon Freeman-Liberty aside for a one-on-one conversation to tell the rookie guard to stay ready.

Zion Williamson had 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in a dominant performance to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 139-98 rout of Toronto on Tuesday, for the most lopsided home loss in Raptors history. Freeman-Liberty's 13 points, three rebounds, and one assist in nearly 18 minutes of play were all career highs in just his fourth NBA game, and the lone bright spot for the Raptors.

"(Rajakovic) told me to stay ready and I just feel like I stay with that mindset through the night," said Freeman-Liberty. "I stay ready and I came out there and gave everything I had."

Toronto’s previous worst home loss was a 126-86 defeat to Orlando on March 29, 1996, at SkyDome near the end of the Raptors’ expansion season.

Freeman-Liberty had his two-way deal with the Raptors converted to a standard NBA contract on Friday. The six-foot-four Freeman-Liberty has appeared in 21 regular-season games for the Raptors 905 this season, Toronto's G League affiliate. He averaged a team-high 24 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 35.5 minutes with the 905.

"I gotta say it is a blessing. Honestly, I got to thank the man above," said Freeman-Liberty. "I appreciate the opportunity that (the Raptors) have given me, the praise that they give me."

Trey Murphy III came off the New Orleans (37-25) bench with a season-high 34 points to lead all scorers. Murphy hit 10 three-pointers as the Pelicans shot an impressive 24 for 49 from beyond the arc.

"Every shot he took not only looked like it was going in, but felt like they were going in," said Williamson of Murphy. "When you have somebody that’s on fire, you’ve got to find them."

Herb Jones contributed five three-pointers, finishing with 17 points, and former Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas had a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.

Immanuel Quickley had 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for Toronto (23-39). Gary Trent Jr. had 16 points and RJ Barrett of Mississauga, Ont., added 15 points with six rebounds.

The injury bug bit the Raptors yet again, with guard Ochai Agbaji leaving the game early with left knee soreness. All-star forward Scottie Barnes (hand surgery), starting centre Jakob Poeltl (torn ligament) and reserve guard Bruce Brown (right knee inflammation) were unavailable for the game.

Toronto announced after the loss that Poeltl had surgery on his dislocated finger to repair a torn ligament in his pinky finger. There was no timetable for his return.

After the Raptors reeled off a quick 8-0 run for a five-point lead early in the game, Pelicans head coach Willie Green called a full timeout. New Orleans responded with an 18-4 run to storm out in front. That helped the visitors to a 42-28 lead after one quarter.

"I thought that we started the game pretty well those first six minutes and then they called a timeout," said Rajakovic. "We were trying our best to stay in front of Zion and protect the paint and they caught fire.

"They caught fire there at the three-point line with Herb Jones knocking down a couple of corner threes and then obviously Murphy, he got really hot as the game progressed."

Williamson stole the ball from Toronto rookie Gradey Dick with 54 seconds left in the half and charged down the court for a ferocious one-handed jam with the 18,864 fans at Scotiabank Arena letting out a collective gasp. Those were the final points of the half as the Pelicans went into intermission with a 68-45 lead.

New Orleans didn't relent in the third, opening the quarter with an 8-1 run for a 30-point lead. Williamson sent a bounce pass to a wide-open Murphy for a 27-foot three-pointer with 12.2 seconds in the quarter for his sixth assist of the night.

Although Barrett responded with a driving layup before the period ended, the Pelicans still held a 106-76 lead.

With the Raptors down by 34 with over four minutes left in the game, fans started chanting "We want Boucher!" to call for little-used forward Chris Boucher of Montreal, the last remaining member of Toronto's 2019 NBA championship team.

Boucher did not play in the loss.

UP NEXT — The Raptors face the Suns in Phoenix on Thursday.

New Orleans continues its East Coast swing with a stop in Philadelphia against the 76ers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2023.

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