The Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans are both stressing game-to-game improvement as they try to grow into playoff contenders.
The Kings, who claimed an encouraging last-second victory at Phoenix on Wednesday, travel Friday to face the Pelicans. New Orleans has played better in splitting its last two games after starting the season 0-3.
“We’re a different group,” Sacramento coach Luke Walton said after Harrison Barnes’ 3-pointer beat the final buzzer and broke a 107-all tie against the Suns. “We have a long way to go still, but we put in time and we put in work and it’s a group that believes in each other, a group that knows they’re headed in the right direction.”
The fact that the Kings needed a basket at the buzzer after holding a 13-point fourth-quarter lead illustrated Walton’s point that the team still has a ways to go. However, beating the defending Western Conference champions on the road was a good sign for an organization that has a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster sometimes,” Walton said. “I’m happy for our guys because they did play really hard. They fought back from a poor first half, built up a nice lead, made some big plays. But we have to learn from that.”
The victory came in the wake of losses to Utah and Golden State after Sacramento held second-half leads. Former Pelican Buddy Hield led the Kings with 26 points in 27 minutes off the bench as the team began a four-game road trip.
“Much better second half,” Walton said. “We started hitting the glass better, started hitting some shots better and we played at a faster pace, and that’s how we have to do for the whole game.”
New Orleans also had an uneven performance Wednesday night, falling to the visiting Atlanta Hawks 102-99.
The Pelicans led by as many as 16 points and were tied with a minute left. But John Collins’ dunk gave the Hawks the lead for good with 55.3 seconds left.
Rookie Herb Jones missed an opportunity to tie the score when he made one of two free throws, and Brandon Ingram missed a potential go-ahead jumper with 3.5 seconds left.
Still, taking an Eastern Conference finalist from last season to the wire after getting their first victory of the season two nights earlier at Minnesota was encouraging.
Guard Devonte’ Graham, who scored a team-high 21 points, was asked if New Orleans was showing improvement over the last two games.
“Definitely, as far as taking care of the ball,” he said after the Pelicans had just 11 turnovers in the wake of averaging 25 in the two games before that.
But New Orleans was out-rebounded by Atlanta 55-44, giving up 21 offensive rebounds.
“Obviously, we got outrebounded, giving up second-chance points,” Graham said. “We’ve got to clean up those offensive rebounds. You can’t let any team get that many second-chance opportunities. It’s going to kill you.
“But that’s correctable, and I think we played very well defensively. We put ourselves in a position to win again. It’s growing pains. You’ve got to learn, you’ve got to be in those positions to know what you’ve got to do and we’ll learn from it.”