The New Orleans Pelicans are on the verge of clinching a play-in spot in the Western Conference.
The Pelicans can guarantee a spot if they beat the Clippers on Sunday night in Los Angeles and if the Lakers lose at home against Denver earlier in the day.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Pelicans (34-43), who started the season 3-16 but have surged since acquiring CJ McCollum in a mid-February trade.
New Orleans passed the Lakers by beating them twice in the last week. A 114-111 road victory against the Lakers on Friday night gave the Pelicans a 3-0 sweep of the season series.
They are also 3-0 against Los Angeles’ other team as they complete the season series against the Clippers on Sunday.
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, starting the season off the way we did,” New Orleans first-year coach Willie Green said.
McCollum scored 14 of his 32 points in the first quarter and Brandon Ingram scored 23 of his 29 in the second half. The Pelicans withstood 38 points from LeBron James and 23 by Anthony Davis in his return from an 18-game absence due to a foot injury.
“It was big time,” Green said of his team’s sixth win in eight games. “They threw the kitchen sink at us. We just hung in there, and the game was back and forth. We have to win games like that.”
Los Angeles held a three-point lead with three minutes remaining, but Jonas Valanciunas scored five points and Ingram added a basket during a 7-0 run that put New Orleans ahead for good.
“We had some poise late in that game,” Ingram said. “Down the stretch, everybody was locked in on the defensive end, and we seemed confident.”
The Clippers (38-40), who finish the regular season with four straight home games, have clinched a playoff berth and are all but locked in at No. 8. The ninth-place Pelicans trail them by 3 1/2 games but hold the tiebreaker regardless of what happens Sunday night.
Los Angeles set a franchise regular season scoring record in a 153-119 victory at Milwaukee on Friday night in which both teams rested most of their starters.
The Clippers played without four starters: Paul George (resting injured elbow), Reggie Jackson (rest), Nicolas Batum (ankle) and Marcus Morris Sr. (knee) as they and the Bucks were coming off overtime games Thursday night.
“We have been in this position before, a lot unfortunately,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “The biggest thing for me is just playing the right way, enjoying, having fun, getting into our second and third actions. And don’t try to do too much because guys are out. I thought that message was well-received by the guys in the locker room. We had to do it by committee.”
Robert Covington scored a career-high 43 points and made a franchise-record 11 3-pointers (in 18 attempts) to lead the way.
“The basket just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Covington said, “and my rhythm just stayed the same.”
Amir Coffey added a career high of his own with 32 points as the Clippers shot 60.9 percent from the floor and 23 of 43 on 3-pointers.