Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) attempts to score as New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram and Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas play defense during the first half of an NBA basketball game at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. The Grizzlies defeated the Pelicans, 115-113. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

In Stan Van Gundy’s eight-month stint as coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, one of the messages he tried to impart was the need for his two most talented players to be impactful on both ends of the floor.

Van Gundy liked to remind Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram that the NBA’s best wing duos — such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers — were playmakers for their teams on offense and defense.

On Wednesday, the Pelicans handed the Minnesota Timberwolves their second loss at the Target Center this season. The game offered a glimpse of what it looks like when Williamson and Ingram are engaged on both ends. The Pelicans’ All-Star duo combined for 46 points, 13 assists, three steals and one block.

Anthony Edwards scored 35 points, yet New Orleans limited Minnesota to 104.9 points per 100 possessions, one of the first-place Timberwolves’ least efficient offensive performances of the season.

“When your best players are playing defense, what reason do the rest of us have for getting beat?” Larry Nance Jr. said. “They are scoring 20 a game and playing defense? The rest of us need to be on our Ps and Qs.”

In the first quarter, Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley appeared to spoon-feed center Rudy Gobert for an easy basket. Conley threw a bounce pass between two Pelicans to a rolling Gobert. As Gobert caught the ball, Ingram already had rotated over and set up outside the restricted area. Gobert crashed into him.

The result was a charge, the first one Ingram had taken this season.

Later on in the third quarter, Williamson made a different sort of defensive play while being the “low man” in help position. Edwards had split the Pelicans defenders with a drive to the rim. It looked as if he would bank in a right-handed layup.

Williamson burst into the picture and swatted Edwards’ take. The Pelicans took the ball the opposite way in transition, and Ingram made a midrange jumper.

"It’s like everything with this team,” Nance said. “It starts with B and Z. If they are going to continue to play at that level, this team is going to be really, really good.”

The Pelicans ranked 23rd in defense in 2020-21, which was when Van Gundy coached them. They improved to 18th in 2021-22, Willie Green’s first year. Last season, they jumped all the way to sixth, and as the midpoint of this season approaches, they rank seventh.

The Pelicans’ defensive turnaround has been powered by the number of big, switchable defensive-minded players they have accumulated. From 2020 onward, the Pelicans drafted, signed or traded for Naji Marshall, Herb Jones, Dyson Daniels and Nance, all of whom are listed between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8. Those four have routinely taken on the most difficult defensive assignments for the Pelicans.

In recent weeks, Ingram has assumed increased defensive responsibility. On New Year’s Eve, Ingram began guarding LeBron James from the opening tip. On Friday, Ingram guarded Kawhi Leonard from the beginning of the game.

Ingram has six steals and six blocks in his last six games. He has put his 7-3 wingspan to use to be a disruptor.

“That’s what it takes,” Green said. “A commitment from especially our main guys. Communicating on the floor. Understanding their matchups. And really just fully committing to guarding night in and night out. It’s hard to play both sides like that. But (Williamson and Ingram) are doing a great job.”

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