Ingram's bounce-back effort helps Pels nab 8-seed

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NEW ORLEANS — Prior to Friday night, the week had not gone the way Brandon Ingram would have hoped.

As the New Orleans Pelicans forward attempted to come back from a bone bruise in his left knee, he had two subpar games as the Pelicans dropped the regular-season finale and the first play-in tournament game to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Ingram responded Friday and as a result the Pelicans are headed to the playoffs.

Behind a team-high 24 points from Ingram and an all-around defensive effort, the Pelicans defeated the Sacramento Kings 105-98 to advance to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. New Orleans will face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night.

“This was the goal at the beginning of the year,” Ingram said. “Throughout it, we had some injuries. We had different things happen. But we had another opportunity today and we came in and everybody contributed.”

Following Tuesday’s loss, during which he didn’t play the final seven-plus minutes, Ingram was in the Pelicans’ practice facility early Wednesday morning getting up shots and working his way back to find his form.

Ingram suffered the injury against the Orlando Magic on March 21 and sat out until the final game of the regular season Sunday. He said it was tough trying to find that rhythm early, but things clicked Friday.

“It’s been one my healthiest seasons and I was out for three weeks just watching and just trying to stay disciplined,” Ingram said. “It’s hard just trying to stay disciplined, trying to stay locked in knowing I wanted to be out on the floor. I was losing some of my conditioning a little bit and just trying to stay ready.

“That was three weeks that passed, and I was just coming in and trying to play 30 minutes after all that and be locked in. I was, of course, hard on myself because I didn’t think it mattered that I just came off the knee injury. Those first two games didn’t go how I wanted to go, but I just wanted to give it all tonight and trust my teammates, trust my stuff and we ended up winning.”

One of Ingram’s defensive plays ended up being a turning point for New Orleans in the second quarter. After a rough start that included Sacramento scoring 11 points off Pelicans turnovers in the first quarter, New Orleans started to seize momentum in the second.

With 7:19 left in the quarter, the Kings got a fast break after another Pelicans turnover. Ingram ran back and fouled Harrison Barnes as he went up for a shot attempt. Barnes missed both free throws and the Pelicans responded with a quick 7-0 run to take the lead for good.

Ingram picked up his third foul with 3:20 left in the second quarter but stayed in the game after a brief conversation with Pelicans coach Willie Green.

“I told him, ‘I’m taking you out.’ And he said, ‘No, I need you to trust me,'” Green said. “So that’s the relationship part of it that he and I, along with the rest of the guys, you build a relationship and that’s a moment where I said, ‘OK, I trust you. You better not pick up your fourth.’ And he was able to play through it.”

Ingram said it was important for him to stay in and help the Pelicans get to halftime with a bigger lead.

“I thought I could control the game,” Ingram said. “Thought I controlled the game the first quarter, the second quarter. And I knew that it was about time for us to go on a run.”

The win moved the Pelicans to 6-0 against the Kings this season thanks to the play-in tournament and the in-season tournament.

“They’re good, long and athletic,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “We’ve been hurt by the 3 by these guys, and we turn the ball over. For us, we have to be the aggressor on offense and take care of the ball. We try to thread the needle with our passes, turn it over, then our floor balance is poor. Then they get out and create separation. They’re a good team.”

New Orleans had struggled at home leading up to the game, losing five regular-season games at home and then dropping Tuesday’s play-in game against the Lakers. The team went 28-14 on the road this season, so to switch things up Friday morning, the Pelicans had their shootaround at the Smoothie King Center instead of at the team’s facility.

The switch worked and now the Pelicans, who won 49 games this season, are in the playoffs. They become the fourth team in NBA history to win at least 49 games but enter the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, joining the 2008 Denver Nuggets (50-32), the 2010 Thunder (50-32) and the 2014 Dallas Mavericks (49-33).

“We deserve it,” Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “That’s how we felt coming into this game and that’s how we felt going into the last game. You don’t win 49 games by accident, that doesn’t happen. You don’t just slip and do that in a historic conference. We’re a really good team and we deserve to be here. We showed that tonight and we’re proud to be going to Oklahoma.”

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