New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) dunks the ball over Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) during the second half of the basketball game at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. (Staff Photo by David Grunfeld, The Times-Picayune)

Walker Kessler is one of the NBA’s better rim protectors. The Utah Jazz center is averaging close to three blocks per game this season.

Late in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game, the Pelicans' Larry Nance Jr. caught the ball near the right block and decided to try him. Nance elevated over Kessler for a right-handed dunk. Nance’s dunk gave the Pelicans a seven-point lead with 1:27 to go. New Orleans, which went on to beat Utah 112-105, picked up its first win on a five-game home stand.

“That’s who I am,” Nance said. "It just felt good to get back to who I am. Earlier in the season, I would have got that drop off and tried to throw up some B.S. hook or some floater. I can make it. But that’s not who I am. That’s not what this team needs from me.”

Early in the season, an accumulation of injuries prevented Nance from playing with the athletic pop he is accustomed to. In September, Nance had an injection to promote healing in his left ankle. Then in November, Nance suffered a rib fracture. The Pelicans said he would miss four to six weeks to recover.

On Thursday, Nance played for the first time since Nov. 27. He scored nine points, collected seven rebounds, made five steals and blocked one shot. The Pelicans outscored the Jazz by 16 points in his 25 minutes on the floor. Nance closed the game for New Orleans, which picked up a badly needed win in a close game

“I felt as good as I’ve felt in years,” Nance said. “The beginning of the year, ankle here. Groin here. Little things that hadn’t healed up yet. I feel great.

“I didn’t want to take time off. It all started because I couldn’t play because I broke my rib. I had to be off regardless. Normally, you just rehab and stay ready. This was more than, ‘Stay ready.’ This was, ‘Get ready.’ Because I wasn’t before. There was a lot that went into explosion work. A lot of quickness. A lot of lifting.”

Last season, the Pelicans finished sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions — tied for their best-ever defensive ranking in franchise history. Nance was an important factor in that. The Pelicans relied on him as a change-of-pace center who allowed them to play versatile, switching lineups. Nance, who averaged 6.7 minutes per game in fourth quarters, frequently closed games for New Orleans.

On Thursday, Nance and backup forward Trey Murphy played the final minutes of the game alongside Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum.

“Having Larry back, it was huge for us," Pelicans coach Willie Green said. "That’s the Larry we are all accustomed to seeing. Credit to him. He worked his tail off to get himself ready to come in and play and be who he is. Without Larry and his production tonight, that game is a tougher game for us to win. We are all grateful to have him back.”

Despite their late-game issues, the Pelicans still have an 18-14 record. They are two games back in the loss column of a top-four seed in the West. The top-to-bottom talent level on their roster is their biggest strength.

“We have so many guys and so many talented scorers,” Nance said. “What we need every given night is different.”

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