Pelicans Look Like a Good Bet to Advance to Vegas

Two of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 10 wins have come against the Sacramento Kings. They’ve matched up well against the Kings, the stars scoring at will and the defense humming and defending as a unit. New Orleans will hope the third time isn’t the charm for Sacramento as they fight to advance to the semifinals of the inaugural in-season tournament.

Dyson Daniels and Herb Jones suffocating the Kings’ backcourt has been the story of those two games. According to NBA matchup data, Dyson Daniels defended Fox for 11 minutes across their two matchups, limiting Fox to nine points on 3-10 shooting. Few NBA players can match Fox’s speed and explosive ball-handling, but Dyson has answered the call thus far.

On the other side of the ball, Sacramento lacks an answer for Zion WIlliamson and Brandon Ingram. Offenses have exploited the Kings’ back line throughout the Sabonis era. Sabonis, though a solid interior defender, doesn’t have the tools to anchor a strong unit. Keegan Murray defends the ball with greater mobility and technique in year two, but he’s missed Sacramento’s last four games with a lower back injury. None of the other forwards and bigs are positive defenders. 

And as expected, the Pelicans offense lapped Sacramento’s 19th ranked defense across their first two matchups. Zion’s 25.5 on scorching hot efficiency (70.9% true shooting) almost feels too low. He’s bludgeoned the Kings’ defense from the low post. No Sacramento defender can limit his drives and doubling hasn’t been much more effective. If the Kings tightly guard Zion and shade with helpers down low, he can burn them with his passing acuity. Williamson is an unsolvable puzzle.

Brandon Ingram scored lights out against the Kings as well, averaging 27 a game on 68/3% true shooting, including a 31-point outburst in their first matchup, tying his season high. Whether by curling off of a Valanciunas screen or matching up in isolation, defenders couldn’t stop Ingram from reaching whichever spot on the floor he hunted. 

Neither of the two previous Pelicans-Kings matchups featured CJ McCollum, who has finally returned from his lung injury. His tertiary offensive threat will continue to pressure Sacramento’s already overtaxed defense. There won’t be as much reprieve this time when Williamson and Ingram sit, as McCollum’s mid-range shot creation (51.6% from mid this season) could lead the Kings’ defense to crack under pressure. 

This isn’t to say the Kings can’t beat New Orleans on Monday. De’Aaron Fox is playing at an all-league level and he and the rest of Sacramento’s offense an explode on any given night to unstoppable levels. But the Pelicans rolled out the Sacramento blueprint twice already this season. The path to advancing is clear. 

Written by contributor Ben Pfeifer.

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