NBA Play-In Tournament: Pelicans top depleted Kings, Heat decimate Bulls to clinch NBA's final playoff spots

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The final two spots in the 2024 NBA playoffs were determined Friday night as the No. 8 seed in both conferences was on the line. The Heat decimated the Bulls in the evening's first game (110-89), and the Pelicans topped the depleted Kings (105-98). The top-seeded Thunder await the Pelicans, while the Celtics will face the Heat. 

Injuries to star players impacted both games Friday. The Heat were without star guard Jimmy Butler, who suffered a knee sprain in Wednesday's one-point loss against the 76ers. Butler was hurt in the first quarter, but played the remainder of the game. Still, Miami was able to make due without its star.

The Pelicans were missing Zion Williamson in their matchup Friday. Williamson was having a career night against the Lakers on Tuesday, scoring 40 points and leading a comeback that ultimately fell short as he left with a hamstring injury in the closing minutes. Yet, much like their Eastern Conference counterparts in the Heat, the Pelicans were able to overcome the absence of a marquee star. Here are the biggest takeaways from Friday's games.

The No. 7 seed streak continues

The Play-In format, while generally enjoyed by fans, was a bit controversial upon its inception. Do we really want to eliminate a clearly deserving team over the course of 82 games because it fell flat in two extra ones? The Pelicans were a pretty stark example of this fear. They finished sixth in the NBA in net rating during the regular season. They won 49 games. A format that doesn't allow such a team into the playoffs is going to invite some criticism.

But the Pelicans won tonight. In the process, they cemented a streak that has lasted since the beginning of the Play-In Tournament: every No. 7 seed has reached the playoffs. Only No. 8 seeds have been eliminated through this new mechanism, and that's a slightly easier pill to swallow. Eventually, a No. 7 will lose. What we're seeing in the early years of the Play-In, though, is that having two home games is a genuinely enormous advantage. Teams that win 49 games should be able to win at least one home game with its season on the line. The Pelicans did so tonight even without Williamson. The system is working.

Sacramento still needs a defensive anchor

Almost everything about the 2023-24 Sacramento Kings suggested that this year was, indeed, different. They had one of the NBA's best defenses down the stretch. They allowed the third-fewest shot attempts in the restricted area per game in the NBA. Who needs a defensive anchor?

Well, as soon as the Kings faced a postseason opponent capable of attacking the basket, they did so with ease. The Pelicans outscored the Kings 58-44 in the paint on Friday, bringing about another wave of Domantas Sabonis criticism. One of the NBA's best offensive centers can't protect the basket. Neither of their forwards, Keegan Murray or Harrison Barnes, are defensive difference-makers. Rookie Keon Ellis can only do so much defensively.

This isn't another round of "trade Sabonis" fear-mongering, but there has to be a middle ground here. If the Kings can't keep the Williamson-less Pelicans away from the rim in a must-win game, what hope would they have in a series against, say, Nikola Jokic? The Kings still have most of their draft capital to dangle in a trade. Turning the Barnes slot at forward into, at least, a decent secondary rim-protector is a borderline necessity here. Last year's Draymond Green rumors might have been overkill, but it's pretty clear at this stage that Sabonis can't protect the rim on his own.

Erik Spoelstra really is the NBA's best coach

Erik Spoelstra very nearly stole a road game in Philadelphia with a hobbled Jimmy Butler on Wednesday by throwing out a zone defense that the 76ers were completely unprepared for. Their offense couldn't quite take them past the finish line, so they were forced to play Chicago on Friday with their season on the line and Butler out.

No problem. Spoelstra blitzed Chicago's ball-handlers, Coby White and DeMar DeRozan, coming off of as many screens as possible. He gambled that they weren't good enough passers to punish them for it, and that even if they were, the Bulls wouldn't be able to make all of the wide-open 3's the Heat gave up. That's exactly how the game played out. The Bulls shot 30.2% on 3's and lost by 21.

The Heat aren't going to beat the Celtics without Butler. They probably won't even come close. But there's going to be a quarter or a half in this series in which the Heat do something weird, catch Boston off guard, and for a brief stretch, actually control a game against the NBA's best team. That's Spoelstra's magic. He can't singlehandedly beat a 64-win team, but without him, the Heat wouldn't even have the chance to play them.

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Pelicans 105, Kings 98

And that will do it here in New Orleans, folks. The Pelicans are the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after defeating the Kings, 105-98. They will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The Kings will hold the No. 14 and final slot in the lottery.

April 20, 2024, 4:08 AM
Apr. 20, 2024, 12:08 am EDT
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Heat 112, Bulls 91

No Jimmy Butler, no problem. The Miami Heat have earned the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference despite the absence of their best player, defeating the Chicago Bulls, 112-91. This is the second consecutive season in which the Heat have eliminated the Bulls in this spot. Now the Heat will go on to face the No. 1 seeded Boston Celtics in the first round.

April 20, 2024, 1:24 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 9:24 pm EDT
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It's been a long time since we've seen anything like this

Remember, before this season, the most a single team could play an opponent before the playoffs was five times (four regular-season games and a Play-In game). A few years ago, the Play-In didn't exist and that max was four. Well, the Pelicans have now faced the Kings SIX times: four typical regular season, one In-Season Tournament and one Play-In. New Orleans won all six to go 6-0 against Sacramento this season. It's been so long since two teams have even played six times before the playoffs that checking when this last happened would be an arduous process. Bottom-line: this was a rarity.

April 20, 2024, 3:54 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:54 pm EDT
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It looks like we have our final playoff team

A 10-0 Pelicans run has the score at 97-77 with 6:31 remaining on the clock. Never count anyone out in the modern NBA, but it looks like we're headed for a Pelicans-Thunder series and the Kings going home as the final lottery team of the 2023-24 season.

April 20, 2024, 3:45 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:45 pm EDT
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What a comeback for Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas had largely fallen out of favor in New Orleans leading into the Play-In round. He averaged just 18 minutes in his last 20 games for the Pelicans as they transitioned to more small-ball with Larry Nance Jr. But boy, tonight we're seeing just how valuable it can be to have a big, bruising center in the right matchup. He has 19 points and 12 rebounds for New Orleans, but more importantly, he is just bullying Domantas Sabonis with his physicality. The Pelicans are so deep with specific, situationally valuable players, and it's showing tonight.

April 20, 2024, 3:40 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:40 pm EDT
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Three down, one to go. Pels in front

The Pelicans led by nine at the half. They lead by nine with one quarter remaining. Sacramento is holding on thanks to 28 De'Aaron Fox points, but the Pelicans have controlled this game thanks to their depth. Five of them are in double-figures. Everyone is defending. New Orleans is 12 minutes away from the playoffs.

April 20, 2024, 3:31 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:31 pm EDT
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The Kings are coming back in this 5-on-2 game

The Kings have cut the Pelicans lead down to 69-61, but more than half of their points have come from two players. De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have 39 points. Their teammates have 22. They can't win this game going 5-on-2. Somebody else is going to have to create some shots for them.

April 20, 2024, 3:17 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:17 pm EDT
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The King Slayer

Herb Jones has been a nightmare to the Kings in all five Pelican wins over them this season. Normally, it's for his stifling defense against De'Aaron Fox. Now? He's doing it on offense. A steal of Keon Ellis allowed him to make a gorgeous cross-court pass to CJ McCollum for 3, and he followed that up with a 3-pointer of his own. An eight-point game is now a 14-point game, and yet again, a different Pelican has taken control of a stretch of this game.

April 20, 2024, 3:11 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:11 pm EDT
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Keegan Murray back

Good news for the Kings as they attempt to overcome what is now a double-digit deficit: Keegan Murray is back on the floor at the start of the third quarter. He left the game due to hip soreness, but now he'll be out there with the Kings the rest of the way.

April 20, 2024, 3:02 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 11:02 pm EDT
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Halftime: Pelicans 54, Kings 45

Sacramento controlled the first quarter, but the Pelican reserves controlled the second. Behind 21 bench points from Larry Nance, Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado, the Pelicans have taken a 54-45 lead into halftime. Adding to Sacramento's frustration is the loss of Keegan Murray to an injury near the end of the second quarter. With his status uncertain and several other role players hurt, the Kings have their work cut out for them in the second half.

April 20, 2024, 2:46 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:46 pm EDT
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Keegan Murray headed to the locker room

Kings forward Keegan Murray, who was so essential in that first Play-In win for the Kings against the Warriors, is headed to the locker room. He seemingly got hurt as he took a fall on that last turnover. We'll provide more information as soon as it becomes available.

April 20, 2024, 2:40 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:40 pm EDT
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Playoff physicality, folks

Crazy sequence under the basket in New Orleans as Larry Nance Jr., fighting for a loose ball, straight up stiff-arms Keon Ellis. No whistle, though it may have gone unnoticed in the chaos. That's the sort of physicality the officials have allowed tonight and this postseason as a whole. Adjust to it or lose.

April 20, 2024, 2:39 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:39 pm EDT
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Depth is paying off

When the Pelicans nearly pulled off their enormous comeback against the Lakers, it was with three reserves on the floor. Tonight, their run is coming with four regular bench players on the court. Brandon Ingram is playing with Trey Murphy, Larry Nance, Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado. That group is on a 9-0 run as the Kings call timeout. 

April 20, 2024, 2:30 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:30 pm EDT
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Balance vs. star power

The scoring breaks down more or less as you'd expect given the circumstances. The Kings have 31 points, and 21 of them have come from stars De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. They're going to be heavy on the big names with Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter out. The Pelicans are missing their biggest name in Zion Williamson, and sure enough, Jonas Valanciunas is the only Pelican with more than five points. It's balance vs. star power so far in New Orleans.

April 20, 2024, 2:23 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:23 pm EDT
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One of the best missed dunks you'll ever see

Trey Murphy certainly isn't lacking in ambition. He already had one monster dunk attempt earlier in this game, but on this one, he truly tried to end Domantas Sabonis' life. He came up just short, but the visual of his height on this jump is still absurd.

April 20, 2024, 2:18 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 10:18 pm EDT
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End of 1st Quarter - Kings 24, Pelicans 22

  • De'Aaron Fox: 11 pts, 5-8 FG
  • Domantas Sabonis: 8 pts, 3 reb, 3 stl
  • Jonas Valanciunas: 6 pts, 5 reb, 2 ast
  • Brandon Ingram/Trey Murphy III: 5 pts each
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Kings' dynamic duo

De'Aaron Fox continues his outstanding plays in postseason games, logging nine points on 4-of-6 shooting in the early going. Not to be outdone, his partner in crime, Domantas Sabonis, has eight points, three rebounds and three steals in less than eight minutes. They've combined for 17 of the Kings' 18 points to open the game, and the Pelicans don't seem to have any answers.

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Ingram, Valanciunas aggressive early

In Zion Williamson's absence, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas have come out with clear intentions to look for their own shot. They're the only Pelicans who have even attempted a shot yet (5 for 12 FG), and we'll see if they start to draw extra bodies, which might lead to extra looks from New Orleans shooters.

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Kings-Pelicans up next

No Zion Williamson is a bummer, but the Pelicans still have two big-time scorers in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. They'll match up with the Kings' thunder-and-lightning combo of Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox. Without Zion, look for Trey Murphy to step up offensively, while Herb Jones will be tasked with slowing down Fox. If you're looking for wild cards, Kings sharpshooter Keegan Murray went wild in their win over the Warriors on Tuesday, and they're going to need a repeat performance to seize the No. 8 seed tonight.

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Some Heat-Celtics notes

  • This is the third year in a row the Heat and Celtics have played in the playoffs.
  • It is the fourth time in five years they've faced off, and the seventh time since 2010. Notably, it is the first series not to technically include Udonis Haslem, so both teams have fully rolled over their rosters since this rivalry began in earnest.
  • The Heat have won 20 of the 37 playoff games these teams have played and four of the six series thus far.
April 20, 2024, 1:15 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 9:15 pm EDT
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What comes next for the Bulls?

It's a 27-point game with eight minutes to play, so it's safe to say this one's mostly wrapped up. Now it's time to look ahead a bit to what comes next for a franchise that has now lost to the Heat in this same Play-In game two years in a row.

  • DeMar DeRozan is a free agent. If he wants to contend for championships, it probably won't be in Chicago. However, given his Bird Rights, Chicago remains by far the likeliest team to pay him. What is his priority?
  • Zach LaVine missed most of the year. He will presumably be back at full strength next year. Will the Bulls try to trade him again? Does anyone want his long-term contract? Or will the Bulls try to treat LaVine as a replacement for DeRozan?
  • Alex Caruso has one year left on his deal. He's been among the most sought after role players on the trade market for years now. Is this the offseason someone finally nabs him?
April 20, 2024, 1:10 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 9:10 pm EDT
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Stick a fork in the Bulls

The Bulls hung around for awhile, but a 12-0 Heat run to end the third quarter has Miami firmly in control. It's a 22-point game at the end of third quarter, but it might as well be 220. The Bulls can't score against this Miami defense. 

April 20, 2024, 12:55 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:55 pm EDT
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The Bulls are combusting

Back-to-back possessions for the Bulls: a stolen inbound pass and an illegal screen from Andre Drummond. One of these teams knows how to remain composed in a big game. The other is the Bulls.

April 20, 2024, 12:52 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:52 pm EDT
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Old man Love

Kevin Love doesn't too much work in the post anymore, but it's nice to have him as a weapon for exactly these situations. He gets the mismatch, the Heat re-post, he gets two easy free throws. Not ideal offense under the best of circumstances. With no Jimmy Butler, you take what you can get.

April 20, 2024, 12:51 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:51 pm EDT
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Oh hey there, Tyler Herro

We have our first great highlight of the night, and it comes courtesy of Tyler Herro. Watch him dart this behind-the-back pass to Caleb Martin for a huge bucket in transition

April 20, 2024, 12:44 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:44 pm EDT
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Heat reading Chicago's defense well

Well, the Heat suddenly start living behind the arc, and the Bulls start getting greedy and trying to take that away too. The Heat read that perfectly, hitting Jaime Jaquez on the move from deep sensing an overly eager closeout. Jaquez glides into an easy dunk. Miami leads by 15.

April 20, 2024, 12:35 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:35 pm EDT
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Now it's the Heat who can only get 3's

Since Bam Adebayo's baseline jumper, the Bulls have basically taken away everything inside of the arc. They want the Heat living and dying from 3 as they did in the first half. That's a risky strategy, but when you're trailing by double-digits, you have to have some appetite for risk if you want the necessary reward.

April 20, 2024, 12:31 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:31 pm EDT
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Halftime: Heat 47, Bulls 37

After leading by as many as 20 earlier in the second quarter, the Miami Heat go into the locker room up 47-37. The story of the game thus far have been the significant scoring droughts. In the first quarter, the Heat went on a 19-0 run that nearly knocked the Bulls out of the game. In the second, the Bulls held the Heat scoreless for nearly five minutes. The difference is that the Heat are making their 3's and the Bulls aren't. Chicago has had a half to adjust to Miami's defensive approach of flooding the rim. Miami has had a half to figure out its offense without Jimmy Butler. Now we're two quarters away from seeing which of these teams makes the playoffs.

April 20, 2024, 12:13 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:13 pm EDT
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Sometimes the shots just don't fall

The Bulls seem to be figuring out how to attack Miami's "nothing at the rim" defense. The problem is that it makes you reliant on high-variance shots, specifically from 3. Well, the Bulls have missed 13 of their past 14 attempts. There's nothing you can do when the shots just aren't falling. That last Bulls possession down 11 was a really good example of how to attack a blitz. DeRozan passed to the open man. The Bulls moved the ball into a wide-open corner 3. They missed. Tyler Herro made a 3 on the other end. What could have been an eight-point deficit is suddenly 14 on bad variance.

April 20, 2024, 12:02 AM
Apr. 19, 2024, 8:02 pm EDT
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Chicago settling in defensively

Now we're starting to see the Heat feel the loss of Jimmy Butler (and, to a lesser extent, Terry Rozier). The Heat are really, really good at generating looks through scheme, but as a game wears on, defenses tend to figure that stuff out. That's when individual shot-creators, like DeMar DeRozan in this second quarter, really matter. The Heat don't have someone like that, and their offense is stalling as a result.

April 19, 2024, 11:57 PM
Apr. 19, 2024, 7:57 pm EDT
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