After a nerve-racking final group stage night, the NBA In-Season Tournament knockout rounds bracket is set. Eight teams remain in commissioner Adam Silver's new competitive vehicle. Seven of those teams are currently at least two games above .500. The other? They needed help from Dallas, but the New Orleans Pelicans (10-9) advanced to the quarterfinals and will face the Sacramento Kings (10-7) on Monday.
Sacramento seeing red, Pelicans playing for keeps
Coach Willie Green stressed that the Pelicans have three games between the end of group play and start of the single-elimination round. New Orleans took care of business against the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday and will welcome in Victor Wembanyama's San Antonio Spurs on Friday. They'll then fly off to face the Chicago Bulls on the second night of a back-to-back set before meeting up with CJ McCollum out west in Sacramento. McCollum is not flying to Chicago, but recognized the importance of the elimination game weeks ago.
The Spurs (3-14) and Bulls (5-14) games might remind fans why the In-Season Tournament exists. The December doldrums of NBA hoops are at their worst when losing teams take the court. The Pelicans should be able to dispatch the two lottery teams even with McCollum, and possibly Williamson, sitting out in Chicago. In fact, the Pelicans have the easiest schedule this month outside of an elimination game (or three). Fans should expect the visit to Sacramento to be far more intense; the players are already preparing for it.
The Pelicans have already banked two home wins over the Kings in November. These two playoff hopefuls also have two more matchups on the schedule later this season. Since this fifth game also counts in the regular season standings, New Orleans can clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win. That extra motivation, plus the return of McCollum and Trey Murphy III, should help negate the effects of a hostile crowd.
These two teams get to avoid each other for a few months after a meeting on January 7th. An April 11th date is the front end of a road back-to-back set. Those are the third and fourth legs of a four-game road trip starting in Phoenix with stop in Portland. The Pelicans have a day off before going from Sacramento to San Francisco to face the Golden State Warriors. Green's squad will then trek back home to finish the season against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 14th.
With how the West is shaping up, every team will have something at stake that last week. The Pelicans can pocket a historic win and a crucial tiebreaker in one swoop. At least the flight from Sacramento to Las Vegas is short. Next would be a long night against the Los Angeles Lakers or Phoenix Suns in Sin City.
Two all-world Stars, one historic moment
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the two most established all-world stars meeting in the other West quarterfinal. No offense to Anthony Davis, Devin Booker or even Bradley Beal, but that trio lacks the combined resume to match James or Durant individually. Taking home the first Commissioner's Cup would be the cherry on top of two Hall-of-Fame legacies for King James and KD.
New Orleans should feel good facing either of those contenders. The Pelicans are getting healthy at just the right moment. McCollum isn't going to Chicago, but he will be in Sacramento. This team is taking the In-Season Tournament title seriously. Williamson “lives” for games like the coming clash on Monday night and Murphy might as well jump into the deep end to begin his season.
The Lakers will be playing at home with a rest advantage. Phoenix has the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies at home this weekend before traveling to Hollywood. The Suns will likely also be without Devin Booker (ankle) and Bradley Beal (back). If the Pelicans advance, smart money would bet on facing LeBron and AD. KD just does not have much help right now.
Pelicans battling odds, beasts out of East
The Pelicans (+1200) are the longshots in the West. Sacramento (+500) is actually the favorite to make it to the title game. The Suns (+600) and Lakers (+550) are dealing with chemistry and injury issues. The Milwaukee Bucks (+350) and Boston Celtics (+300) are the odds-on favorites, but both have red flags saying don't bet the house.
Boston will be without Kristaps Porzingis, who will be reevaluated in a “week or so.” Milwaukee will be missing Jae Crowder, out at least eight weeks, and possibly Pat Connaughton. The Celtics will lack the firepower of Portzingis and the Bucks would be short at least one defensive-minded rotation player.
The Big 3 of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum would still be underdogs in an In-Season Tournament championship game though. Still, who's to say they cannot go win it all in Las Vegas? Longer odds have come through after traversing tough roads.