Herb Jones #5 and Jordan Hawkins #24 of the New Orleans Pelicans celebrate during a Nov. 14 In-Season Tournament win over Dallas.

Pelicans have been at their best during In-Season Tournament competition

New Orleans, Sacramento small-market representatives among final field of eight teams

Should we call it December Madness?

After a total of 60 November group-stage games were played within the NBA’s brand-new In-Season Tournament, the 2023 event heads to a conclusion this week, with eight teams competing over seven games in a single-elimination format. It’s the closest the league comes to replicating the survive-and-advance urgency of the NCAA Tournament, one of the nation’s most fan-friendly sports competitions.

When the In-Season Tournament concept was unveiled this summer, many basketball analysts suggested that the eight-club knockout stage might be most compelling – and most replicate the NCAA’s entertaining month of March – if it featured a mix of recent NBA title contenders, a Cinderella story or two, as well as a sprinkling of large and small markets.

An 11th-place finisher in the Eastern Conference last season, the Indiana Pacers qualify as a bona fide underdog who hails from a mid-sized city (Indianapolis’ population is 880,000). In the West, quarterfinal opponents New Orleans (370,000 population) and Sacramento (520,000) both fit the bill as small-market representatives. Amid rampant injuries, the Pelicans finished in ninth place last season, while the Kings were a No. 3 seed, but in doing so ended the longest playoff drought (16 seasons) in NBA history.

New Orleans has again battled key player absences early in the 2023-24 campaign, but the Pelicans (11-10 overall) are among the final eight teams in the In-Season Tournament because some of their finest performances occurred on the event’s brightly-colored courts. A case can be made that their two best home victories of ’23-24 so far were In-Season matchups vs. Denver (115-110 on Nov. 17) and Dallas (131-110 on Nov. 14). New Orleans’ only IST loss was a 104-101 nail-biter in Houston, decided in the final seconds. The Pelicans are just 1-3 overall in road games since Thanksgiving, but that one victory came on the LA Clippers’ home floor, an outcome that pushed the Pels to the top spot in West Group B.

Meanwhile, Sacramento (11-7) was one of only four teams that navigated the group stage unbeaten, joining Indiana, 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee and the Lakers at 4-0 each. The Kings posted impressive victories over fast-starting Oklahoma City and Minnesota in West Group C, then mounted a thrilling final-minute comeback over Golden State last week to remain perfect.

New Orleans has been particularly strong defensively during In-Season Tournament play, registering an efficiency of 105.9 points allowed per 100 possessions (via NBA.com). That’s compared to 112.5 in its 21 total games played. The Pelicans were fifth among the 30 teams in In-Season Tournament net rating, outscoring their four opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, a figure that even surpassed Sacramento (7.5), despite the Kings going undefeated.

To advance to Las Vegas this week, the Pelicans will need to continue that level of performance Monday, this time in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, a difficult task. The Kings have the NBA’s sixth-best home record at 6-2, compared to a 5-5 road mark. New Orleans has a similar home/road discrepancy, going 8-4 in the Smoothie King Center, but just 3-6 in away games. Of course, two of those eight home triumphs came in tilts against Sacramento during the week of Thanksgiving. The Pelicans must beat the Kings for a third time over a 15-day span to earn a spot in a neutral-site game Thursday, in the In-Season Tournament semifinals.