Two teams tied for ninth place in the Western Conference playoff race with 18 games remaining go head-to-head Wednesday night when the New Orleans Pelicans visit the Sacramento Kings.
The Pelicans have won two straight and the Kings seven of 10 leading into the teams' second of three regular-season meetings.
The teams will meet again March 22 at New Orleans, with the Pelicans, a 117-115 winner when the playoff hopefuls squared off in January, needing to win one of two to clinch the season series and potentially a critical tiebreaker.
The game will be Zion Williamson's first in the California capital since his injury-delayed NBA debut on Jan. 22. The Pelicans have gone 6-3 in his previous nine first-time visits to NBA sites.
One of those wins came Sunday at Minnesota, where Williamson scored 23 points and teammate Jrue Holiday had 37 in a 120-107 win over the Timberwolves.
The duo combined to go 12 of 15 from the free-throw line as the Pelicans continued a recent trend of getting more foul-shot opportunities.
They had 28 in Friday's win over Miami and 31 Sunday against the Timberwolves -- each being significantly more than their season average of 23.2.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said getting to the charity stripe makes a difference and gave the powerful Williamson credit for the upswing.
"I think what he's done, and we've struggled with this in the last few years, is we have a tough time getting in the bonus," Gentry told reporters after Sunday's game. "With him on the floor, that's happened a lot more frequently than it has in the past. He creates foul situations. Those fouls where we're taking it out of bounds with four, five minutes to go have become bonus free throws."
With Williamson sidelined for the Jan. 4 meeting in Sacramento, the Kings got three more free throws than the Pelicans but failed to take advantage. One big reason: De'Aaron Fox went just 5 of 11 on a 17-point night.
Fox has fixed the problem in recent outings, going 37 of 40 (92.5 percent) in Sacramento's last five games.
"I work on that type of stuff every day," Fox tld reporters after making 10 straight free throws in Sunday's 118-113 loss to Toronto. "At the end of the day, if I want to be one of those players in the league, I have to be comfortable getting to the line and knocking them down. I obviously feel like I should get more free throws, but for the ones I'm getting to the line, I know I have to make them."
The loss to the Raptors tipped off a four-game homestand for the Kings. They'll also see Brooklyn and Dallas in the next six days.
New Orleans will be playing for the second time on a four-game trip. It gets tougher from here: Friday at Utah, and Saturday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
Sacramento's Harrison Barnes was the leading scorer in the earlier Kings-Pelicans duel, going for 30 points.
--Field Level Media