Pelicans make their move without Zion, keep Kings in playoff desert

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) goes to the basket in the first half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game against the Sacramento Kings in New Orleans, Friday, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Brandon Ingram led the way for the Pelicans in the NBA play-in tournament. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It was no Zion Williamson, no problem for the New Orleans Pelicans. At least on Friday.

The Pelicans prevailed past the Sacramento Kings 105-98 on Friday in the final game of the NBA play-in tournament, despite losing their most recognizable player to a hamstring injury in their previous game. They are now set to face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round as the West’s No. 8 seed.

The loss ends the Kings’ season, which continued into Friday via a cathartic win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. The team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004.

Brandon Ingram led the way for the Pelicans, with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists on an impressive night for a team that went 49-33 in the regular season. Sacramento held the advantage early, but the Pelicans, with an enthusiastic Smoothie King Center crowd behind them, took control late in the second quarter and led by at least five points for the entire second half.

A 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter all but put the game away, though a late Kings run did bring the lead back to single digits.

Now, the Pelicans have the Thunder to worry about, with Williamson not likely to help. He was diagnosed with a hamstring strain and will be re-evaluated more than week in the future, leaving the Pelicans to figure out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company without him. The Pelicans went 1-2 against the Thunder in the regular season.

Game 1 is scheduled for Sunday at 8:30 p.m. CT in Oklahoma City (TNT).

Where do the Kings go from here?

The Kings entered this season with hopes higher than any season in recent memory. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis led Sacramento to the third-best record in the West with one of the best offenses in the NBA.

That season ended in disappointment with a seven-game loss to the Warriors in the first round, but hope remained. The team’s core was young, with Fox, Sabonis, Keegan Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Hurter all 27 or younger. It was reasonable to expect improvement, but the Kings saw stagnation instead.

It would be unreasonable to say the Kings have to go back to the drawing board after two postseason disappointments, but they clearly can’t approach this offseason thinking all they need is a complementary piece here or there. Life is never easy in the Western Conference.

The Kings owe the Hawks their first-round draft pick this year as part of the trade for Huerter. If they want to double down on this core, it might be time to trade away even more draft capital for a veteran to slide in somewhere between Fox and Sabonis.

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