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Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Pelicans Beat Kings 127-117, Advance to NBA Cup Semifinals

In the second game of TNT's NBA Cup Knockout Rounds doubleheader, the New Orleans Pelicans rallied from a 15 point first quarter deficit to defeat the Sacramento Kings 127-117. The Pelicans are 12-10 overall this season, but they are 3-0 versus the Kings. Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans with 30 points on 10-20 field goal shooting while also grabbing eight rebounds and passing for six assists. Herbert Jones added 23 points, Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, and C.J. McCollum--in his third game back after missing 12 games due to a collapsed lung--scored 17 points and passed for a team-high seven assists. Zion Williamson had quiet boxscore numbers (10 points, six rebounds, six assists), but he posted the best plus/minus number among New Orleans' starters (+4).

De'Aaron Fox led Sacramento with 30 points, but he shot just 10-25 from the field, including 1-7 from three point range. Domantas Sabonis posted a triple double, scoring 26 points on 8-12 field goal shooting and 10-10 free throw shooting while posting game-high totals in rebounds (13) and assists (10).

After the Kings jumped out to a 32-17 lead at the 4:27 mark of the first quarter it looked like the Kings would be "lighting the beam" and advancing to the NBA Cup Semifinals. Instead, the Pelicans closed the first quarter with an 18-4 run. The Pelicans took a 13 point lead in the second quarter, they were on top 69-61 at halftime, and they never trailed in the second half. Overall, they shredded the Kings' defense with 47-87 (.540) field goal shooting, including 14-31 (.452) from beyond the arc.

The Kings are trying to build on last season's first round playoff loss, the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2006. The 25 year old Fox looks like he will be a perennial All-Star, while the 27 year old Sabonis is already a three-time All-Star. The Kings were the highest scoring team in the league last season, but they have slipped to 10th this season, though their 25th ranked scoring defense has improved to 21st. They are young enough and talented enough to develop into an elite team, but they need to continue to improve defensively while maintaining a top 10 offense.

There is no doubt that the Pelicans have a lot of talent. Williamson is a two-time All-Star, Ingram made the All-Star team in 2020 and has averaged at least 22 ppg in each of the past four seasons, and McCollum has averaged at least 20 ppg for each of the past eight seasons, the longest such streak ever for a player who has never made the All-Star team. However, so far that trio has not produced a single playoff series win for the Pelicans, mainly because of their collective inability to stay healthy and available. As Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith noted during the TNT telecast, Williamson looks out of shape now; that is significant not only in terms of potentially affecting his productivity but also in terms of making the injury-prone Williamson vulnerable to suffering yet another injury. 

Ingram is an eight year veteran, and even though Williamson is just 23 years old he is already a five year veteran who has never stayed healthy for long. McCollum was durable in the first portion of his career, but he is 32 years old now and has been battling injuries for the past several seasons. The notion that these three players are going to simultaneously enjoy sustained health seems unlikely. Williamson is obviously the key, because he is the youngest and most talented of the Pelicans' three stars; he not only must get into better shape, but he must improve both his rebounding and his defense. Unfortunately, his identity as an NBA player--both in terms of conditioning and skill set limitations--seems to be established; how many injury-prone, one-way players have transformed themselves into durable two-way players?

Five years from now, it will be interesting to see how many times these two talented teams have reached the Conference Finals and NBA Finals. Sustained team success--not "advanced basketball statistics" and not marketing hype--is the most meaningful way to measure basketball greatness.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:27 AM



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