Over and out: Play-in loss to New Orleans Pelicans costs Sacramento Kings trip to playoffs

The Sacramento Kings proved they were capable of beating all the top teams in the Western Conference this season, but they never found an answer for the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans secured the No. 8 seed in the West with a 105-98 victory over the Kings in a play-in tournament game Friday night at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

The Pelicans will face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 in the best-of-seven series will be played at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City.

Sacramento went 0-5 against the Pelicans during the regular season and lost again in the game that mattered most. The Kings struggled to match up with the Pelicans’ superior size, length and athleticism.

“They’re good, long and athletic,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “We’ve been hurt by the 3 by these guys, and we turn the ball over. For us, we have to be the aggressor on offense and take care of the ball. We try to thread the needle with our passes, turn it over, then our floor balance is poor. Then they get out and create separation. They’re a good team.”

The Kings failed to reach the playoffs a year after earning the No. 3 seed to end a 16-year drought, bringing a disappointing end to a season that started with so much promise. The question now is where do the Kings go from here with upgrades required and Malik Monk entering free agency.

“Right now, I just have to take a couple days, decompress, and think about it,” Kings center Domantas Sabonis said when asked about the 2023-24 season. “We’ll have our exit interviews with the coaches and the GMs, and we’ll talk all about that in a couple days.”

Brandon Ingram scored 24 points to help the Pelicans prevail despite the absence of star forward Zion Williamson, who is expected to miss at least two weeks with a left hamstring strain.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Trey Murphy III added 16 points.

Ingram knows he has to carry more of the load with Williamson out.

“I have more of a scoring role,” Ingram said. “I got to do everything on the basketball floor still, just a little bit more, be more aggressive. The margin of error is way shorter now. Every time down the floor, we have to get a good shot. We have to get defensive stops. We have to rebound the basketball. We know that’s most important for the playoffs.”

De’Aaron Fox had 35 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals for the Kings. Sabonis recorded a double-double with 23 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

Harrison Barnes added 17 points for Sacramento. Keegan Murray was held to 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting after suffering a hip injury in the first half. After the game, Brown talked about the need for Murray to become more aggressive in hunting for his shots.

Neither team shot the ball well in the opening minutes with the Kings going 3 of 10 and the Pelicans going 5 of 12 to start the game. Sabonis and Valanciunas were both active early, combining for 12 points and eight rebounds in the first five minutes.

Fox found his rhythm midway through the first quarter, scoring seven points in a span of 2:02 to key a 9-2 run that put Sacrament up 18-13. The Kings went up by as many as seven and led 24-22 at the end of the opening period.

The Kings forced six turnovers in the first quarter, but they committed five of their own after ending the quarter with some sloppy possessions.

“I thought our physicality was there throughout the course of that first quarter, but at the end we turned the ball over,” Brown told TNT during a sideline interview. “We’re trying to play in a crowd with the basketball and we can’t do that.”

New Orleans staged a 9-0 run to take a 38-31 lead on a breakaway dunk by Larry Nance Jr. with 6:13 to play in the second quarter. The Pelicans went up by 12 on dunk by Naji Marshall following Sacramento’s ninth turnover of the game.

That turnover came when Murray slipped and fell after taking a dribble-handoff from Sabonis. Murray left the game with 2:43 to play in the half and limped back to the locker room for treatment from the team’s medical staff.

The Pelicans led by as many as 13 and carried a 54-45 lead into the halftime break. They outscored the Kings 32-20 on points in the paint and 21-4 in points off the bench.

“Our bench has been really good, really starting at Phoenix, and they’ve taken off,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said.. “They’re a big part of our team, big part of what we do. We rely on their speed, their ability to turn the game inside-out. Jose (Alvarado), Naji climbing the guys defensively, playing with speed and force, Larry — huge effort across the board.”

Murray returned to start the second half despite experiencing left hip soreness, but he looked a step slow at times on defense while his offensive struggles continued.

New Orleans went up 65-51 on a 3-pointer by Herb Jones early in the second half. Sacramento battled back to cut the deficit to eight following back-to-back 3-pointers from Fox and Davion Mitchell. The Kings got within seven on another 3-pointer by Mitchell, but they trailed 83-74 at the end of the third quarter.

New Orleans outscored Sacramento 14-3 to start the fourth. The Pelicans took a 92-77 lead on a jumper by Ingram and went up by 20 on 3-pointer by Alvarado.

The Kings mounted a 14-4 run to cut the deficit to seven with 22.8 seconds remaining, but by then it was too late.

The Pelicans shot 51.8% while holding Sacramento to 40.9%. They finished with a 58-44 advantage on points in the paint and a 34-12 advantage in bench scoring.

“Our focus was to limit the 3s and make them drive,” Sabonis said. “They’ve hurt us a lot over the past five games with 3s, and when they drove, I feel like we gave them too much of an easy lane to go downhill.”