By Michael Wagaman | The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — CJ McCollum and Jaxson Hayes each scored 23 points and the New Orleans Pelicans clinched a spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament, beating the Sacramento Kings 123-109 on Tuesday night.
Brandon Ingram added 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds for the Pelicans (35-44), who never trailed. New Orleans has won four of five and will finish ninth or 10th in the West and face San Antonio next week to open the play-in.
“It’s beautiful to see we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to have an extended season,” said Pelicans rookie coach Willie Green, whose team overcame losing 12 of its first 13 games. “Nobody wants to go 1-12 or whatever we were. It made us tougher, it made us stronger. More importantly it made us more connected.”
Hayes helped the Pelicans secure a spot in the play-in by matching his career high for scoring and rebounds (12). He shot 10 of 14 with a pair of 3-pointers.
“I was just trying to cut, get rebounds, crash the glass, and trying to bring energy to the team,” Hayes said.
Damian Jones had 22 points for Sacramento. Davion Mitchell added 15 points and a season-high 17 assists.
The Kings, who were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday for an NBA-record 16th consecutive season, trailed by three at halftime but couldn’t keep up when the Pelicans went on a shooting streak in the second half.
New Orleans led by three at halftime, then pulled away with seven 3s in the third quarter – one by five different players and two from Trey Murphy III.
Sacramento got within 105-99 in the fourth quarter before McCollum scored down low and Ingram followed with two free throws.
That helped the Pelicans inch closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18, when they were coached by Alvin Gentry – currently the Kings interim coach. New Orleans has stayed in the hunt this season despite being without star forward Zion Williamson, who hasn’t played since fracturing his right foot and undergoing surgery in the offseason.
New Orleans has a one-game lead over San Antonio for home-court advantage in the 9-10 game. The winner would then have to beat the loser of the matchup between Nos. 7 and 8 to make the postseason as the No. 8 seed.
“I know we started off bad but we all believe we’re a talented group of guys,” Hayes said. “We’re excited to get to the play-in and try to show what we can do in the playoffs.”
The Pelicans were also missing Jonas Valanciunas (right ankle soreness) against the Kings but it hardly mattered. New Orleans held a 44-36 rebounding advantage and outscored Sacramento in the paint 58-44.
“Every time we got close enough to try to make up ground we kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” Gentry said. “The turnovers hurt us in real crucial situations, and then we missed some open shots and easy layups.”
Pelicans: New Orleans shot 9 of 15 on 3s in the second half. … McCollum and Herbert Jones each had four steals.
Kings: Jones made six of his first seven shots and scored 15 points before halftime. … De’Aaron Fox (wrist) and Domantas Sabonis (left knee) remain out.
Pelicans: Travel to face the Trail Blazers on Thursday. New Orleans has won both games against Portland this season.
Kings: Play the Clippers in Los Angeles on Saturday.