Naji Marshall #8 of the New Orleans Pelicans goes to the basket Nov. 20 vs. Sacramento.

Pelicans expect playoff-like atmosphere in Sacramento for In-Season Tournament quarterfinal

Monday tips off knockout stage at 9 p.m. Central

The last time Jordan Hawkins played a game in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, the then-UConn sophomore scored 20 points and led the Huskies to a rout over Gonzaga, punching a ticket to the 2023 NCAA Final Four. If you’re even a casual college basketball fan, you know the rest of the story – Hawkins and UConn captured a national title, dominating Miami and San Diego State.

Hawkins would love nothing more than to return to Las Vegas this week for the first time since earning the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player award in March. For that to happen, his new team – the New Orleans Pelicans – must win Monday at Sacramento (9 p.m. Central, Bally Sports, TNT, WRNO 99.5 FM), in the single-elimination, quarterfinal round of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament.

“Getting back there (to Las Vegas) would be pretty cool, bring back some memories,” said Hawkins, ranked third on NBA.com’s Rookie Ladder, behind only Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama. “It’s definitely going to be like one of those (March Madness) games, and I played pretty well in those games.”

Monday’s Western Conference matchup in Golden 1 Center between third-seeded New Orleans (11-10, won Group B at 3-1) and second-seeded Sacramento (11-7, won Group C at 4-0) will mark the third time the Pelicans and Kings have met in just a two-week span. New Orleans won consecutive home games on Nov. 20 and 22, prevailing by blowout (129-93) and in clutch time (117-112), respectively.

“I think it’s going to be a high-intensity game for a few reasons,” Pelicans third-year head coach Willie Green said recently of Monday’s contest. “We played Sac (in the Smoothie King Center) and beat them twice – they’re going to be ready to play us. The In-Season Tournament, the guys know what’s at stake. On the road, it’s going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be kind of a playoff-intensity game for us.”

“I heard it’s really hard to play in Sac,” Hawkins said, when asked what veteran teammates have told him about the often-raucous environment in one of the NBA’s newer arenas. “I’ve been a part of some really hostile crowds in my career, especially playing in the Big East and playing in high-level conference games, the conference tournament, Final Four. It’s probably going to be like one of those. I haven’t played in a playoff game yet. I think it’s going to bring a little bit of that playoff atmosphere.”

As was the case for Sacramento, New Orleans wasn’t assured of a spot in the In-Season Tournament knockout stage until the final day of group-stage pool play Tuesday. Other than a 2022 playoff trip and a 2023 play-in game vs. Oklahoma City, the Pelicans don’t have much experience collectively in high-pressure, high-stakes games. Partly for that reason, they were pleased to advance in the In-Season Tournament. New Orleans won Group B outright, not needing a tiebreaker to do so.

“We’re happy that we made it,” point guard Jose Alvarado said. “First time ever (for tournament to exist). We’re learning more about it day by day. We’re learning how it goes.”

“They were excited,” Green said of his players’ reaction to Dallas beating Houston on Tuesday, clinching NOLA’s top spot in Group B. “Any time it’s the first time that the NBA is having something, and we’re a part of it, you want to celebrate that.”

“I think we had the best bracket or division,” Hawkins said, referring to the formidable competition in Group B. “To win our (group) with teams like the Mavs, Denver and the Rockets, that’s really good. We can look at that as a good sign for us.”

In addition to favorable In-Season Tournament results so far – New Orleans’ 3-1 record includes a plus-33 point differential – the Pelicans have enjoyed the brand-new concept. It brought a higher level of intensity and urgency to some November games, while also adding importance to other matchups in the West.

“It brings some extra attention from the fans,” center Jonas Valanciunas said of the interlocking aspect of the format. “You track the scores, different brackets. You get more interested. Yes, it counts as regular season games, but still, different courts, different uniforms. The tension is there. That’s great.”

“It brings playoff expectations earlier,” Alvarado said, referring to the lengthy six-month, 82-game regular season. “I think that’s something they’re trying to bring to the game.”

“It’s a pretty cool event,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s good for the game of basketball and will definitely bring more eyes into it, make it more competitive.”

New Orleans players seem in agreement that the debut of the In-Season Tournament has been a major positive for the NBA and the sport, particularly in creating more reasons for November/December games to be deemed as important. But the biggest plus for Pelicans players would come if they’re able to win three games this week and claim the event’s championship, not to mention the obvious financial benefit (each player on the title team will earn $500,000). All knockout-round games will provide a unique stage as well, nationally televised and the only NBA game occurring during each window on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday (semifinals) and Saturday (championship).

“We’re excited to be a part of it,” forward Zion Williamson said, prior to the Pelicans advancing to the quarterfinals. “I think this will be a great test for us, in terms of competing in a tournament or championship, because we haven’t won anything. I think we’re all excited.”

“It’s extremely exciting,” Hawkins said Saturday. “We have the opportunity to be a pioneer, as the first In-Season Tournament champions. That would be really cool.”