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Pelicans shootaround update: New Orleans can seal first trip to postseason since 2018 with win in Sacramento

It would require a pair of wins next week to turn it into a full-fledged Western Conference playoff berth, but New Orleans (34-44) can ensure that it will compete beyond the 82-game regular season by winning Tuesday at Sacramento (9 p.m., Bally Sports, 100.3 FM). A win in any of the ninth-place Pelicans’ four remaining games will clinch a play-in tournament berth, but they’d prefer to get that out of the way as soon as possible, while increasing or maintaining a one-game lead over No. 10 San Antonio (33-45). Simply beating the Kings on Tuesday – or if the Lakers lose Tuesday in Phoenix – will guarantee New Orleans qualifies for the NBA postseason for the first time since 2018.

Regardless of how the rest of 2021-22 plays out for New Orleans, the experience of playing in high-stakes games is something first-year head coach Willie Green believes will be invaluable for his club long term. New Orleans has three rookies playing significant roles (Herbert Jones, Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III), as well as seven other players with four years or less of NBA experience on its roster.

Asked Sunday about the impact of the NBA’s implementation of extra play-in spots, Green responded, “It’s pretty cool coming down the stretch of the season, when you’re in the ninth spot or 10th, normally if you couldn’t get to eighth (place due to too large of a standings deficit), those games didn’t matter as much. But now, having play-in implications, these are meaningful games, especially for a young team like us. And even for myself, being able to coach in games down the stretch, it means a lot to our team and our organization.”

Other notes:

How much has Sacramento’s rotation changed since New Orleans’ most recent trip to California’s capital city? From the Nov. 3 game won by the Kings 112-99, among nine players who appeared for Sacramento, only two of them also played in Sunday’s loss vs. Golden State. There are more Kings from the Nov. 3 matchup currently on Eastern Conference rosters (Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield; Chicago’s Tristan Thompson) than may be on the floor Tuesday vs. New Orleans.

SACRAMENTO SCOUTING REPORT

Offensive efficiency rank: 24 (109.6)

Defensive efficiency rank: 27 (114.7)

Net rating: 25 (-5.1)

Pace: 8 (100.14)

Streak: Lost 1

Go-to guy: With franchise cornerstones De’Aaron Fox (hand) and Domantas Sabonis (knee) sidelined recently by injuries, Davion Mitchell (18.7 ppg) and Harrison Barnes (17.2) have been Sacramento’s top offensive threats over the past six games. The Kings have gone 4-2 over that stretch, with Barnes shooting 48 percent from the field and Mitchell connecting on 46 percent of his shots, though both have been below average from three-point range.

On the rise: Baton Rouge native Damian Jones is in the midst of the best stretch of his six-year NBA career, averaging 16.7 points and 8.2 rebounds over the last six games. Starting at center with Sabonis and Richaun Holmes (personal) out of action, the Vanderbilt product registered 17 points and 17 rebounds at Houston on Friday, two days after he notched 24 and nine in those categories against the Rockets.

PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS

NEW ORLEANS (34-44, 9TH IN WEST)

Sunday loss at LA Clippers

CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, Jonas Valanciunas

Notes: This group is 7-3. Sunday’s loss in Los Angeles was its first in regulation since Feb. 17 vs. Dallas. Valanciunas is listed as questionable due to right ankle soreness. … New Orleans holds a magic number of one to clinch a West play-in berth and four to clinch the No. 9 seed. The ninth spot could be sealed as soon as Thursday evening, but would require a pair of NOLA wins and two San Antonio losses (at Denver, at Minnesota in its next two games). … The Pelicans are 16-23 on the road. They went 13-23 in away games last season during the shortened 72-game schedule.

SACRAMENTO (29-50, 12TH IN WEST)

Sunday loss vs. Golden State

Davion Mitchell, Justin Holiday, Harrison Barnes, Trey Lyles, Damian Jones

Notes: This group is 4-2, beating four opponents also eliminated from postseason contention (Indiana, Orlando, Houston twice), but losing to Miami and Golden State. … Sacramento still has a chance to catch the 31-47 Lakers in the standings and potentially affect L.A.’s pre-lottery slot (currently No. 8), but for that to happen, the Kings must finish 2-1 or better. Sacramento concludes the season on the weekend with road games against the Clippers and Phoenix.

FANDUEL KEYS TO THE GAME

PUNCH THE TICKET

Fatigue can set in at the end of a lengthy road trip that began with a flight out of New Orleans last Tuesday, but New Orleans has clear motivation to bring the intensity to the Golden 1 Center hardwood. A win over the Kings would sew up a play-in spot and make for a much happier return trip across two time zones Wednesday.

RISING ROOKIES

Jones and Mitchell are first-year pros to watch, currently ranked seventh and eighth on NBA.com’s weekly Rookie Ladder. Jones has been a prominent piece in NOLA’s dramatic turnaround from a 3-16 start, while Mitchell’s role increased significantly in recent weeks (the Baylor product and guard has started eight straight games).

MATCHUP TO WATCH

At small forward, Ingram and Barnes are dynamic scorers who can hurt a defense in multiple ways. Ingram is one of the NBA’s premier mid-range bucket-getters, while Barnes has scored at least 18 points in all three meetings vs. New Orleans this season.