Without Zion Williamson, Pelicans reclaim identity of depth and disruption to reach playoffs

NEW ORLEANS – When Naji Marshall caught Brandon Ingram’s kickout pass in the right corner, he thought about shooting it. He was open enough to get a clean look, and considering the night he was having, no one would’ve blamed him for letting it fly.

Instead, he gave up a good shot for a great shot.

As a Sacramento Kings defender sprinted his way, Marshall swung a quick pass to the wing, where fellow second-unit sparkplug Jose Alvarado stood alone. As soon as the ball hit Alvarado’s hands, Marshall held up three fingers and pointed them at Alvarado, as if he knew the shot was going in.


“Those are winning plays,” center Jonas Valančiūnas said.

Alvarado’s three put the New Orleans Pelicans up by 20 points halfway through the fourth quarter and drew the night’s loudest roar from a Smoothie King Center crowd was overcome with joy — and relief. New Orleans secured a 105-98 victory over the Kings to earn the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. As a result, the Pelicans will face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, with Game 1 scheduled for Sunday in Oklahoma City.

Alvarado’s dagger, which effectively ended Sacramento’s season and handed the Pelicans their sixth win over the Kings this campaign, encapsulated the Pelicans’ victory on a night they were desperate to save this season and the current group’s very reputation.

With Zion Williamson out because of a hamstring strain he suffered in Tuesday’s Play-In loss to the Lakers, all eyes were on Brandon Ingram and what he could do to save the Pelicans from another year ending in injury heartbreak. While Ingram certainly had some bright moments on his way to 24 points, six rebounds and six assists, Friday’s win was all about the contributions of the role players that usually surround the Big 3 in New Orleans.

The Kings’ stars showed up. De’Aaron Fox had 35 points and Domantas Sabonis added 24 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists. Meanwhile, the Pelicans’ CJ McCollum had his second consecutive off night, tallying only seven points on 3-of-8 shooting.

But this was a night that belonged to the underdogs, the names that don’t get mentioned often on national TV. This is a reality the Pelicans know all too well, and they have a roster full of quality players who fit this description.

While Zion, Ingram and McCollum are the splashy names, the Pelicans’ depth was the driving force behind their 49-win season. When New Orleans was rolling, any of the top 10 guys in its rotation could swing a game. It’s one of the main characteristics that differentiates this group from other playoff teams in the West. It’s no coincidence Zion and Ingram experienced the most team success of their respective careers while seeing significant dips in their scoring production.

The remarkable play of Williamson and McCollum over the final month of the season, particularly after Ingram’s knee injury, temporarily got the Pelicans away from their identity. But it came back in full force on Friday with their backs against the wall. Marshall, Alvarado and Larry Nance Jr. combined for 34 points off the bench and each posted double-digit plus-minus ratings. Trey Murphy, a reserve who moved into Williamson’s starting lineup spot, contributed 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

“Our bench has been really good. They’re a big part of our team. They’re a big part of what we do. We rely on their speed (and) they’re ability to turn the game inside-out,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “They’re all important to what we do. It’s refreshing to see the results. And the results is being back in the playoffs.”

After Friday’s win, Nance referred to that usual four-man bench unit as the “Core Four.” This four-man group has built chemistry together over the last three seasons, and their skill sets complement each other well. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans have outscored teams by 19.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season when those four share the floor. Remove Murphy from the mix, and the three-man group of Marshall, Alvarado and Nance has outscored opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions when they play together.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Nance said of playing with the bench units. “I love those guys. Playing on the same court as them, it’s just energy, energy, energy and fight. That’s what this team needs.”

Marshall and Alvarado are pests as on-ball defenders, and Nance is as solid as they come as back-line defenders. Those three have consistently created turnovers against opposing teams, which has allowed New Orleans to play in transition. Those four, combined with starter Herb Jones and second-year reserve Dyson Daniels, allow the Pelicans to throw an array of defensive looks at opponents.




Marshall’s play in Friday’s win was especially uplifting for his teammates after seeing him fall out of the rotation the past few games. Instead of pouting about his lack of minutes, Marshall seized his opportunity on Friday and never looked back. His physicality and fearlessness ignited New Orleans from the moment he stepped on the floor. He ended the night with 11 points, six rebounds, two steals and a block in 24 minutes.

Marshall may not even get regular playing time in a playoff series if Zion was healthy. However, having him as a sort of enforcer coming off the bench has been unexpectedly valuable.

“I cannot wait to see him in this playoff atmosphere. He’s the type of player who thrives off this,” Nance said. (He’s) physical, unselfish, just brings the energy.”

Marshall could be especially useful in a series against the Thunder, when it will be important to have as many defensive options as possible to throw against MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Marshall will undoubtedly get a turn – along with Jones, Alvarado, Murphy and several others – against one of the NBA’s most potent scorers. Oklahoma City has done a good job of taking care of the ball all season, but the more Marshall, Alvarado and Jones can provide pressure in halfcourt sets, the easier it’ll be to take Oklahoma City out of its rhythm.

It will also help if the Pelicans get Friday’s version of Valančiūnas. The veteran center has his speed limitations, but with Williamson out, the Pelicans need his inside presence and his ability to command a double-team in the post. He provided an excellent counter to fellow Lithuanian Sabonis Friday, finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds in 27 minutes. A matchup against athletic Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren may not be as advantageous, but Valančiūnas’ offensive reliability may be invaluable when New Orleans is struggling to score.

“He’s just been a professional. Not only in this game but throughout the season,” Ingram said of Valančiūnas. “Him not touching the floor sometimes in the second half, him not being in the game as much. … That’s hard to do when you’ve been in the league for so long and you’ve been producing for so long. For him to come out and be ready tonight, it was big.”

As the Pelicans quickly turning the page to prepare for the start of the playoffs, they will need meaningful contributions up and down their roster to have a chance. With Williamson expected to miss at least the first two games of the series, they will not have the best player on the floor. But the Pelicans believe they still have a chance at pulling off an upset by attacking the Thunder in waves rather than falling into a 1-on-1 duel.

They are also, somehow, the more experienced team on this stage. When the Pelicans made the 2022 playoffs, Jones, Alvarado and Murphy were all rookies, and Marshall was in his second season as a pro. Ingram was also a playoff newcomer back in 2022, and while he played some of the best basketball of his life during the team’s six-game first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, he’d also admit he left some opportunities on the table due to his inexperience.

Two years later, that same Pelicans nucleus, sans an injured Williamson, hopes to use those lessons to be a more significant threat to the talented, but young top-seeded Thunder than most believe.

“We were just happy to be in the playoffs,” Murphy said of his experience in 2022. “This year, we’re trying to make a run. I’d say we’re way more experienced and we’ve gone through a lot more as a group. We’re prepared to make a run.”

(Top photo of Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado: Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)

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