The Sacramento Kings are still alive in the Western Conference playoff race thanks to their 140-125 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday.
Zion Williamson had his best game of the restart, scoring 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting in just 22 minutes.
Entering the day, the Kings had lost each of their first three games since the NBA season restart and had the worst record among all teams still playing in the West at 28-38.
Thursday's victory moves the Kings into a tie with the Pelicans and Phoenix Suns, but they are still 2.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for eighth and 1.5 games back of the Portland Trail Blazers for ninth.
The Pelicans' loss is devastating to their playoff pursuit, even with a favorable schedule remaining. They entered the day tied with the San Antonio Spurs and one game back of the Blazers for the No. 9 seed.
New Orleans doesn't have any games remaining against teams with winning records, but it will need help over the final week of the season to reach the postseason.
Notable Player Stats
- Zion Williamson (NO): 24 points (10-of-12 FG), 2 REB, 2 AST
- Bogdan Bogdanovic (SAC): 35 points (13-of-20 FG), 4 REB, 3 AST
- De'Aaron Fox (SAC): 30 points (12-of-21 FG), 10 AST, 3 REB, 3 STL
- Brandon Ingram (NO): 24 points (8-of-14 FG), 3 REB, 3 AST
- JJ Redick (NO): 18 points (5-of-10 3PT FG)
Inept Defense Dooms Pelicans
Amid all the excitement about Zion Williamson's potential to be part of the NBA playoffs in his first season, one thing that got overlooked is how bad he—and the Pelicans—have been on defense all year.
They entered Thursday ranked 18th in defensive efficiency and 27th in points allowed per game (116.7).
Things have been especially alarming since the restart, beginning with the Los Angeles Clippers shooting 25-of-47 from three against New Orleans on Aug. 1.
The Kings had no problem taking advantage of New Orleans' defense from the jump with 49 points in the first quarter.
Sacramento did slow down in the second quarter with just 28 points, allowing the Pelicans to get within seven at halftime. Ultimately, though, the Kings kept the pressure going and were too much to overcome.
It's plausible to assume this is merely a one-season anomaly and things will get better for the Pelicans. They didn't have Williamson for most of the year because of injuries and minutes restrictions. Rookies are also known for struggling on defense out of the gate.
The Pelicans do have a lot of defensive talent. Jrue Holiday is one of the most respected players on that side of the ball among his peers:
Williamson was an excellent defensive player at Duke. There's no reason to believe he's forgotten how to play on that side of the ball yet.
Lonzo Ball has been a quality defender throughout his career.
As long as head coach Alvin Gentry preaches to his players the importance of locking down opponents, the Pelicans should be fine next season. They haven't looked ready for the challenge since the season restarted, which could cost them a spot in the playoffs.
Fox, Bogdanovic Give Kings Hope
When the Kings were at their best during the 2018-19 season, there was an air of excitement around the franchise for the first time in years.
The Ringer's Dan Devine included the Kings among his five most interesting teams last season:
"Sacramento's ignominious league-leading playoff drought will indeed continue for another year, but there's something to be said for the fact that the Kings remained alive until the end of March and did so by playing a vibrant, frenetic brand of basketball that revitalized a long-moribund franchise and introduced the NBA to some young players on the road to stardom."
At the heart of Sacramento's surge was an offense capable of scoring with anyone in the NBA. De'Aaron Fox was a budding star; Buddy Hield earned a contract extension after averaging 20.7 points per game and shooting 42.7 percent from three; and Marvin Bagley III showed promise as a rookie with 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
This season has been much more in line with the Kings teams that came before 2018-19. Hield has regressed and is shooting under 40 percent from three (38.9) for the first time since he was a rookie in 2016-17. Bagley's season ended after 13 games because of a foot injury.
Despite a number of issues, Thursday did offer a glimmer of hope for the Kings' future. Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic were at the peak of their powers on offense.
Bogdanovic is eligible for restricted free agency this offseason, but The Athletic's Jason Jones reported in April that Sacramento intends to match any potential offer the 27-year-old might receive.
A nucleus of Fox, Bogdanovic and a healthy Bagley is a good start for the Kings. Hield has a high ceiling if he can return to the shooting form he displayed before this season.
There is something for Sacramento to build around. It will require a lot of things to go right for the franchise to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, but Thursday was a good indication of what the team can be in a best-case scenario.
The Pelicans will be back in action on Friday when they take on the Washington Wizards at 8 p.m. ET. The Kings will play the Brooklyn Nets at 5 p.m. ET on Friday.