By David Grubb

Beating the Sacramento Kings for a third time this season was one thing, but now it gets serious for the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans played very good basketball, for the most part, to defeat the Kings and advance to the semifinals of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. However, “very good basketball” might not be enough to get past the LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers to move on to Saturday’s championship game.

The Pels are 8-4 over their last 12 games as they’ve climbed back up to eighth in the Western Conference standings. During that stretch they’ve beaten the Mavericks, Nuggets, Kings (3x), Clippers, and 76ers; teams that are a combined 19 games above .500.

They are as healthy as they’ve been all season with their starting lineup intact and only Larry Nance Jr. missing from the main bench rotation.

New Orleans is 5-1 this season, including their last three in a row, with the starting five of CJ, BI, Zion, Herb, and JV. Over their last three games, they have a net rating of 8.9, sixth-best amongst all lineups with at least 40 minutes played during that period.

However, the Lakers playing some of their best basketball as of late, having won seven of their last 10 on the way to Las Vegas. Los Angeles, even with James and Davis, hasn’t been great on offense. The Lakers do have one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, posting a 108.7 defensive rating over their last 10 games, good for third in the league.

The Pelicans seem loose, and why shouldn’t they be. This tournament format is far more similar to what most of this roster has experienced when it comes to opportunities to “win something” than anything they’ve seen in the NBA.

Brandon Ingram said as much following Wednesday’s practice. “It feels like March Madness a little bit,” he said, “or an AAU team traveling, being in the same spot in Vegas (for multiple days to play a tournament).”

McCollum, who failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in his career after last season, sees value in the Pelicans playing on such a big stage.

“It was fun to play on the road in Sacramento against a really good team who has playoff experience,” said McCollum. “These are really good experiences for us as a young team to figure out how to execute, withstand runs, how to properly game-plan for an elimination game. All of those things will pay dividends for us.”

In the short term, the focus is on tonight, and the Lakers. The Pelicans have not had much success against LA as of late, losing three of four last season; though both teams are looking much different from the last time they met back on March 14. Neither Zion Williamson, nor Jose Alvarado were available for that 15-point loss in the Smoothie King Center, and Dyson Daniels was a rookie still finding his way. Josh Richardson was the Pels’ top scoring option off the bench.

The Pelicans have a new look, and a building a new swagger. It will put fully to the test against the hated Lakers.