The Kings faded against the Pelicans and watched their season end abruptly

NEW ORLEANS — There were brief but fleeting moments late Friday night when it felt like the Sacramento Kings’ season might not end, that they could find a way to push past a New Orleans Pelicans team that had dominated them all season and slip into the first round of the playoffs.

Like here: It’s early in the third quarter. The Kings stabilized after a second-quarter uppercut. They’ve cut a double-digit deficit back down to eight. They generated another defensive stop. De’Aaron Fox is pushing it in transition against a backpedaling Pelicans defense. He throws it over to Keon Ellis on the left wing with only one defender guarding both him and Harrison Barnes, spotted in the left corner. An open 3 or drive should be there.

But the advantage is ruined. Ellis fakes a pass to Barnes and Herb Jones doesn’t budge, so he actually tries the pass, which Jones — an All-Defensive Team candidate — deflects, corrals and pushes up the floor and then finds CJ McCollum in the corner for a transition 3. In 10 seconds, the Kings go from having a chance to cut it to five to instead being down 11 again.

There were a ton of those debilitating sequences for the Kings. They lost 105-98 and watched their season go up in flames on the doorstep of the playoffs because they made too many mistakes when it mattered most and didn’t provide their two stars, Fox and Domantas Sabonis, with enough secondary help.

Fox had 35 points, his highest total against a defense that gave him problems all season. He looked sharp early, bursting past Jones and Trey Murphy for a few layups that had the Kings up seven. He hit a few 3s at necessary times.

But the Kings wilted without him on the floor during his first-half rest and Fox began to look fatigued as the minutes piled up. Fox played the entire third quarter and had a chance to slingshot the Kings back in it before the fourth.

Down 10 with 2:06 left in the third, Fox was fouled. He missed both free throws. The Kings got a stop. Fox was fouled again. He missed another free throw. With 53 seconds left in the quarter, he had a wide-open 3 that he left short. With 16 seconds left in the quarter, he wiped a lazy crosscourt pass that was easily intercepted and turned into a Brandon Ingram jumper near the buzzer.

They entered the fourth down nine when a Fox flurry could’ve instead had it down around three. Kings coach Mike Brown clearly saw the fatigue. He tried to get Fox a rest to start the fourth, but the Kings’ thinning depth was continually exposed. Davion Mitchell struggled in the first half when Fox sat and Ellis struggled all night. Ellis, the Tuesday hero against the Warriors, missed all five of his shots and went scoreless in 28 minutes. He was a minus-20.

“I thought we were a little passive offensively,” Brown said. “Not all of us were aggressive with our play. We need to get the ball into the paint.”

Brown pinpointed Keegan Murray’s lack of aggressiveness. Murray ripped the Warriors for 32 points in 39 minutes Tuesday. He made eight 3s. Four of those came in the first quarter. Against the Pelicans, it was the opposite. He missed a few 3s in the first quarter and sank into the background.

Murray was 1-of-8 shooting late in the first half when he tried to make a jabstep move up top and slipped on the court, hurting his hip, losing the ball and giving the Pelicans a runout dunk in the process. He left for the locker room. Brown tried Sasha Vezenkov as a replacement, which didn’t do much. Murray tested the hip at halftime and returned in the third quarter but remained quiet, finishing with 11 points.

“Our two young fellas, Keegan and Keon, struggled from the field,” Brown said. “They were 4-of-17 from the field. Then we didn’t get much except for Davion from the bench.”

The Kings were torched from 3 during an 0-5 regular season against the Pelicans. So they schemed to take away the 3 on Friday night. That aspect of the game plan worked. New Orleans only got up 19 and made seven but too often was able to slip through cracks or run wide open backdoor for uncontested dunks in the half court.

But Brown didn’t seem too concerned about the defense postgame, believing the 105 points they gave up were reasonable. They didn’t score enough and again missed the presence of Kevin Huerter and, particularly, Malik Monk, who had an outside shot to return to the Kings at some point during a theoretical first-round series against the Thunder.

But that faint dream is over now and the Kings now turn to an offseason with a few questions to answer. Monk’s future is a priority. They want him back but can pay him a starting salary of only around $17 million, which could be topped on the open market.

“People that watched us play know he should be Sixth Man of the Year,” Fox said. “But at the end of the day, this is a business. What he gave to us in his two years with us, he showed his value, what he could do for a team. I’ll be happy for him if he’s with us or he isn’t.”

Fox didn’t sound overly confident Monk, one of his better friends, would return. He did say he’d try to convince him to come back.

“For sure,” Fox said. “But money talks. You can’t play this game forever. We have such a short window to play basketball. Not everyone is going to be Bron or CP, play 19, 20 years. You have to be able to get paid whenever you can. That’s what Vince Carter told me. He played 21, 22 years. I’d love to have him back, but I don’t know what the future holds.”

The Kings finished the season with 46 wins. It was their second straight season over .500 after 16 straight seasons under .500. So the trend is still pointing in a positive direction, but the conference improved around them. Those 46 wins weren’t enough to get into the playoffs when 48 wins delivered them the third seed the previous season.

So it’s a slight step back and a Friday night gut punch, coming only three days after one of the best wins of the Brown era, eliminating the Warriors in blowout fashion Tuesday in Sacramento.

Controlling owner Vivek Ranadive exited the arena quickly after the loss. The team stayed over in New Orleans. They were delivered a slight positive: The loss means they’ll keep their lottery-protected first-round pick, which will land either 13th or 14th in the draft. But the loss also sent them into an earlier-than-expected offseason.

“Personally, as a team, I thought we got better,” Sabonis said. “It’s just, we couldn’t finish some games. We dropped a couple. The West is tougher. We put ourselves in a bad situation.”

(Photo of the Pelicans’ Larry Nance Jr. scoring between the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox and Keon Ellis: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

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