NBA Play-In Tournament

Kings prepare for Pelicans with clean slate despite winless record

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SACRAMENTO – With their season on the line, the Kings will face a New Orleans Pelicans team that has bullied and embarrassed them five times over the past five months.

Not only will the Kings be looking to avoid going 0-6 against the same team in a single season when they play New Orleans on Friday night at Smoothie King Center in a do-or-die NBA Play-In Tournament game, but another loss would mean their 2023-24 NBA season is over – at the hands of their season-long tormentors.

The Kings, however, don’t view it like that.

Kings forward Keegan Murray, coming off a huge game against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, said the vibes around the team are as good as they’ve been all season, adding the team feels confident heading into Friday’s contest. Murray shut down the notion that New Orleans’ 0-5 record over Sacramento will factor into Friday’s big game.

“Not at all. We’re just focused on this one game,” Murray said after practice Thursday. “It’s a one-game series. We know if we win this, we move on. Every other game doesn’t matter, it’s not as important as this one.”

The two teams faced each other three times by Dec. 4, once in January, and then the fifth and final time exactly one week ago on April 11.

Four of Sacramento’s five losses to New Orleans were by double digits, and two were by more than 30 points. The respective outcomes, in chronological order, were: 129-93, 117-112, 127-117, 133-100 and 135-123.

“We just have to be better,” Kings star guard De’Aaron Fox said Thursday. “What happened before doesn’t matter. This is a one-game series. We have to go to their place and we have to earn a win.

“We have to earn it against a team that we haven’t beaten this year. You go out there and you want to prove it to yourself. This is how the chips were laid. We have to be able to win this game if we want to get to where we want to get to.”

The Kings (46-36) finished as the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference, while the Pelicans (49-33) finished as the No. 8 seed. New Orleans played the No. 7-seed Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday to fight for the No. 6 playoff seed and a first-round series against the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Sacramento took care of business and hosted No. 10-seed Golden State, but its path to a first-round series has one more hurdle – and the Kings must face their fears against their biggest bullies.

Regardless of the sky-high stakes, though, Murray doesn’t feel any added pressure, but acknowledges that these games “feel like it’s a Game 7.”

“Not really, to be honest,” Murray said. “We go out there and it’s basketball at the end of the day, so you want to go out there and just give it your all. At the end of the day, my goal is to leave the game with no regrets and I want to go into the offseason, whenever that is, with no regrets.”

Now having three elimination games under their belt, including Games 6 and 7 of last season’s first-round playoff series against the Warriors, along with Tuesday’s game, the Kings feel prepared for the moment.

“Yeah definitely,” Fox said when asked if the team feels ready. “Obviously we’ll have shootaround tomorrow, but we’re ready now.”

Kings coach Mike Brown feels that same confidence, and believes the adversity that struck his team like a lightning bolt down the final stretch of the season helped prepare them for a high-pressure moment.

Sacramento lost two key pieces to its offense when Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk went down with injuries. But under unfortunate circumstances, the rise of two-way-player-turned-admirable-NBA-story Keon Ellis and the resurgence of third-year guard Davion Mitchell helped the Kings turn the corner at the right time.

“I feel our guys are [ready],” Brown said. “Going through what we went through at the end of the season where every game felt like a must-win for us, it’s helped us grow and get in the right mindset for games like this going forward.”

After the Warriors ended the Kings’ storybook season last April in a heartbreaking seven-game series, the Kings sought and got their revenge two nights ago when they repaid the favor back to their Northern California neighbors.

While the team is approaching Friday’s game with a clean slate and leaving the past in the past, Mitchell is licking his fingers a little with some more revenge on his plate.

“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Mitchell told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “In the regular season they kept beating us. They kind of just had our number and were talking trash the whole time, so we’re looking forward to it.

“We need our get back. That’s one thing we need to get. The Warriors were one team we wanted to play just because of Game 7 [last season], but that’s a team we definitely got to get.”

Brown necessarily isn't looking at it that way, but he doesn't care how or where his players draw motivation.

"Davion said something about our last game being a revenge game. If guys feel that way, then whatever gets them motivated or whatever pushes their buttons," Brown said. "I didn’t care if it was Golden State. I didn’t care if it was New Orleans. Whoever’s in front of us – we have to win. And whatever motivation we need to generate a win, I'm all for it."

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