NEW ORLEANS — The very best moments of Zion Williamson’s NBA debut were the unrestrained ones: his joyous celebrations, the “M-V-P” chants that poured down during his fourth-quarter scoring explosion and his gravity-defying leaps for defensive rebounds and lob passes.

The most challenging moments, in turn, were the restrained ones. The New Orleans Pelicans have exercised the utmost caution in handling Williamson since he underwent surgery to address a meniscus tear in his right knee, delaying his return weeks after his original projected recovery timeline. Although he started in his NBA debut, a 121-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in New Orleans on Wednesday, Williamson was pulled from the action after just four minutes. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists but played just 18 minutes.

Most notably, Williamson was removed from the game with more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter. He did not reenter the game, even though he had just carried the Pelicans’ offense by scoring 17 consecutive points, including four straight three-pointers, and cut the Spurs’ lead to three.

This decision — to honor Williamson’s minutes limit rather than ride the excitement of the moment — showed remarkable organizational discipline, and the circumstances surrounding it amounted to the ultimate test of New Orleans’s approach.

The Pelicans and Spurs are locked in a race for the Western Conference’s eighth seed, so the game had playoff implications. Williamson had waited three months to play and was confined to the bench after finally finding his rhythm. And the Smoothie King Center crowd, which has for years posted some of the NBA’s worst attendance figures, was fully invested in the drama of a storybook comeback.

Yet the Pelicans, led by executive David Griffin, opted to spoil the night’s fun and play the long game. Williamson and Coach Alvin Gentry both grumbled their objections afterward.

“I’m 19,” Williamson said. “Honestly, in that moment I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about that game. It was very tough. … Me personally, I didn’t want any restrictions. But I’m not a doctor or a trainer, so I’ve got to listen to them.”

Gentry, meanwhile, made it clear that sitting Williamson wasn’t his preference.

“I ain’t the brightest coach in the world,” Gentry said. “But I wasn’t going to take him out in that situation unless I was told to. … You’ve got to be smart about it. We understand that we have to look long term and not one game.”

The competing interests at play here add to the intrigue. Williamson, a high-level competitor who described moments of extreme frustration and impatience during his recovery period at a Tuesday news conference, asked Gentry whether he could remain in the game. Gentry, who was not hired by Griffin and who could miss the playoffs for the fourth time in his five seasons in New Orleans, needs every win he can get.

It was Griffin, in consultation with a revamped medical and training staff, who mandated the decision to sit Williamson down the stretch as part of a comprehensive recovery plan.

“It was predetermined that he was going to have four bursts that were not going to be any longer than a certain minute number,” Griffin said on an ESPN podcast Thursday. Whenever the Pelicans’ trainers saw Williamson show signs of fatigue, Griffin explained, the forward was to be removed from the game, even if the coaching staff objected.

The logic in that approach seems sound, and Williamson exhibited clear signs of fatigue at multiple points Wednesday. During his active but not strenuous pregame warmups, he tugged on his shorts and put his hands on his hips. Early in the first and third quarters, he was visibly trying to catch his breath.

The most obvious signs of fatigue came shortly after halftime, when he committed two sloppy turnovers in quick succession and was removed from the game moments later. What’s more, Williamson appeared to be dragging his right leg at various points throughout the night, and he only exhibited his trademark vertical explosion on a few occasions.

Critics might argue that there is no major health difference between playing 18 minutes and 22 minutes on a given night and that the size and scope of his debut, which drew more than 2.3 million television viewers, warranted a less rigid approach.

If Williamson appeared 100 percent healthy or looked like he was in midseason condition, perhaps the arguments to turn him loose would be more convincing. Given the clear on-court concerns and the natural ramp-up that is required after knee surgery rehabilitation, the cautious approach was the correct one.

The Pelicans’ minutes limit denied the basketball world a delicious comeback story in mid-January, but their priority and sole focus should be planning for Williamson to dominate in May and June for the next decade.

Read more: