The Pelicans are heading to Las Vegas for the first-ever In-Season Tournament after securing the West Group B spot during group play and defeating the Sacramento Kings in the quarterfinals.
Quarterfinals vs. The Sacramento Kings
The Pelicans had won two games against the Kings this season at the Smoothie King Center in November, dominating the paint in both instances. In one game, the Pelicans outscored Sacramento 126-68 in field goal points. However, the Kings are a completely different team on their home court, boasting a 6-2 record at home heading into the game. Therefore, it was anticipated that the matchup would be tough.
"This is going to be a high-intensity game; they're going to be looking for some payback after losing twice to us," said Coach Willie Green. The game was exciting even before tip-off for the Pelicans, as Trey Murphy III and CJ McCollum were both making their first appearances on the road after returning from injuries. Although there were concerns about McCollum traveling, there were no complications upon assessment, and he was ready to play.
"It's a unique experience having a regular-season game that's also an elimination game," said Coach Green. "I look forward to seeing them compete at that level." He also explained how games like this are great for young players, as they get to experience this level of intensity before the playoffs, requiring higher focus and less room for error.
The Pelicans had to work through very tough opening minutes of the game, being dominated on both ends of the floor for the better part of the first quarter.
"Sacramento came out and hit us in the mouth. They had fast pace and great three-point shots," said Coach Green. He explained that during the first quarter, what he saw build the team back up was playmaking and trusting one another, pushing the game to a one-point difference by the end of the first frame.
Fighting through each quarter, the Pelicans created a great, high-energy competition. New Orleans outshot Sacramento by 54% to 44% in field goal percentages and 45% to 34% in three-point shots, resulting in a127-117 win.
New Orleans further proved how well-rounded the squad is with six players putting up double-digit points. Brandon Ingram came out aggressively from the jump, scoring 30 points, 8 rebounds, and six assists, carrying the team to victory.
On another note, Williamson became frustrated throughout the game. And although he was heavily guarded, he only put up 10 points over the course of the game
We saw Herb Jones fly up and down the court, getting blocks, shots, rebounds, and some big shots offensively—scoring 23 points. "Herb was everywhere tonight, and we needed that effort tonight," said Coach Green. While Jones is known as a defensive player, his improved offense skills with numbers like this has made his game next level.
"We bring it every night, no matter what's on the line," said Jones regarding his mindset for the game.
Viva Las Vegas!
After this win, the Pelicans are headed to Las Vegas to play in the semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers. New Orleans being a part of this "final four" is great not just for the players and fans but for the franchise overall—being the only team that hadn't clinched a playoff spot last season.
In regards to the surplus in viewers in these In-Season Tournament games, many people will be watching the Pelicans for the first time. "We got shooters, guys who can get to the rim, defensive forces, rebounders…I feel like we check all the boxes. It should be fun for everyone to watch," said Naji Marshall.
It all starts at 4 p.m. CST in Vegas. First, the Milwaukee Bucks will face off against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern semifinals. Then at 8 p.m. CST, tune in to see the Pelicans face off against LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers.
As James has already won multiple NBA MVP recognitions, championship titles, and Olympic gold medals, he'll be on a mission to add the NBA Cup to his resume. And while the league may be gunning for a championship game with LeBron and the Lakers against Giannis and the Bucks, we are looking forward to watching the Pelicans give them a run for their money.
The intensity will be there, as will high energy and thrilling basketball that you won't want to miss. Go Pels!