The New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings could not have asked for a better NBA Play-In Tournament finale. The Pelicans have beaten the Kings five times this season but the sixth meeting is all that matters now. New Orleans and Sacramento know each other well too. This should make for a low-scoring, defensive-minded title fight on-court environment.

The Pelicans are under immense pressure as the season seemingly falls apart. Brandon Ingram's negative body language drew as much attention as Zion Williamson's most recent injury. The team fell from fourth place in late March to the final elimination NBA Play-In Tournament game in April.

Still, Jose Alvarado is ready for a dogfight against a shorthanded but scrappy Kings squad looking for revenge.

“We gotta keep watching film but we did it (beat the Kings) five times. Whatever we did those five times…we got to do it more tomorrow,” Alvarado stated. “We know how they are coming in and trying to beat us. I know they are tired of not beating us but we cannot get tired of beating them. We got to go fight. It's going to be a dogfight.”

De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, and Keegan Murray will lead Sacramento's charge into the Smoothie King Center. The Kings have plenty of momentum having knocked off Steph Curry's Golden State Warriors in convincing fashion. Losing Kevin Huerter to a torn labrum and Malik Monk to a sprained MCL gave plenty of room for Keon Ellis and Davion Mitchell to grow into larger roles.

It has paid off for the Kings. Sacramento was 18th in Defensive Rating before the All-Star break (116.1). They jumped to ninth after the NBA's midseason hiatus (110.9). Mike Brown's band has been elite since Monk and Huerter went down, climbing to fifth over the last 10 games of the regular season (108.1).

Ellis and Mitchell flashed plenty of offensive potential in college. Their inclusion into this rivalry is likely to depress the final scoreline and increase the possibility of a close game down the stretch. That's a tough situation considering Sacramento has both of their All-Stars available.

Pelicans need to figure out Kings' De'Aaron Fox

New Orleans Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado (15) discusses a play with referee Gediminas Petraitis (50) against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half of a play-in game of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Smoothie King Center.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans have an offseason to lick their wounds and rework the roster with a loss. A win sets up a date against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. That series would start less than 48 hours after the Play-In game ended. There is perhaps no better way to prepare for NBA MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than to slow down Fox.

Jonas Valanciunas versus Sabonas is the undercard. Herb Jones against Fox is a heavyweight clash. Fox averaged 26.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and two steals this season. He shot 46.5% from the field and 36.9% from beyond the three-point arc. Fox's offense is electric but the All-Star's defense has been near-elite this year. Fox tied Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the most steals and led the NBA in deflections.

That's bound to cause problems for the Pelicans on both ends of the floor. Williamson's amped-up defensive energy will be missed. Ingram's cardio cannot be on the same level as Fox's after three weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury. It comes down to Herb Jones, who can make one final statement on his First-Team All-Defense case.

Figure out Fox and the Pelicans likely move on to face the Thunder. If not, it would be a disappointing yet fitting end to a promising season that ultimately fell apart.