Kings reflect on ‘mountain-and-valley’ season after play-in loss to New Orleans Pelicans

Just about everything that went right for the Sacramento Kings in their play-in opener against the Golden State Warriors went wrong in their season-ending 105-98 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday at Smoothie King Center.

A hobbled Keegan Murray had a forgettable performance with 11 points three nights after scoring 32 against the Warriors. Breakout guard Keon Ellis, whose defense was invaluable against Stephen Curry on Tuesday, went scoreless while Sacramento was outscored by 20 in his 28 minutes.

The contrast in performances against the Warriors and Pelicans embodied the main issue that has plagued the Kings throughout the season and ultimately prevented them from reaching the playoffs after earning the No. 3 seed a year ago.

“I feel like we had really good wins and we had really bad losses,” Murray said afterwards. “So it was really a mountain-and-valley season for us. That’s something that the top teams in the West, they’re just consistent throughout the whole season.”

Murray made four of his 12 shots while going 2 of 7 from 3-point range after making 8 of 13 against the Warriors. The Pelicans posed a very different challenge than Golden State with Trey Murphy III and Herb Jones defending the perimeter.

“I think Keegan could have been a little bit more aggressive,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “He’s a young guy going through this and I’m sure (he is) gonna improve from it and realize what he can do better to help us going forward like everybody else.”

Murray in his second season made clear improvements in his overall playmaking and attacking the rim after spending the bulk of his rookie season as a spot-up shooter. And given their limited resources going forward, Murray’s improvement is going to be vital for Sacramento to make the playoffs and advance next season.

Murray missed his first four shots to start the game and never found a rhythm like he did against the Warriors.

“Only one team gets to win a game at the end of the year,” Murray said. “So it’s a learning lesson for everyone. Obviously, I just want to get healthy and I think it’s a big offseason for me to get stronger, evolve my game more because I feel like I took a leap this year and want to continue to take leaps every year.”

The Kings went 46-36 this season. They will fly home to Northern California on Saturday while the Pelicans will travel to play the top seed Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday in Game 1 of a seven-game playoff series.

Players had differing answers when asked about the nature of the season following the loss.

“That’s always the question: How do you become consistent?” star guard De’Aaron Fox said after scoring a game-high 35 points. “I think on the defensive end, I think that’s where we have to get there. ... It’s always a make-or-miss league, but if you’re able to be physical on that end of the floor, trying to keep your pace up as much as possible, then that’s kind of where the consistency of your play style comes into effect — but sometimes you make shots, sometimes you miss shots.”

Said Kings center Domantas Sabonis: “Right now, just gotta take a couple days and decompress and think about it. A lot of our exit interviews with the coaches and the GM — we’ll talk about that in a couple of days.”

The team made strides on the defensive end while the rest of the league caught up to their offense, which set a record for efficiency last season. Ultimately, the Western Conference improved and the Kings finished two games worse in the regular season, settling for the play-in tournament after earning the No. 3 seed a year ago.

“It’s a little tough right now,” Brown said. “I’m still thinking about this game and the loss. ... Our guys faced some stuff this season that they didn’t face the season before and they tried to stay with it, tried to battle through it. We just came up short and we were hoping not to.”

Sabonis had 23 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to supplement Fox’s scoring. But the Kings — who were missing Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malik Monk — had their reserves were outscored 34-12. They struggled shooting overall, making just 41% of their field-goal attempts and 27% from the 3-point line.

The Pelicans’ length was too much for the Kings, just as it was when they went 5-0 against the Kings during the regular season. Sacramento lacked consistent scoring to supplement Fox, who had 28 points through three quarters while the game was within reach.

“That’s the question for the coaches and GMs,” Fox said. “My job is to go out there and try to make plays, trying to get downhill, try to create shots for myself and try to create shots for my teammates.”

The Kings were down by nine at the end of the third quarter, but they went 1 of 11 from the field to start the fourth while the Pelicans stretched their lead to 20 on a Jose Alvarado 3 that ignited the home crowd in the Crescent City.

Ultimately, after overcoming injuries to Monk and Kevin Huerter in their win over the Warriors, the Kings couldn’t muster enough offense to reach the playoffs after ending the longest playoff drought in NBA history last spring.

“Obviously, there’s something to build off of still,” Fox said. “The West isn’t getting any easier, so obviously it’s a disappointment to not be in the playoffs, not be one of those top eight teams, but we have something to build off of, and you look forward to going into next season.”