Kings hope sixth time is charm against Zion Williamson-less Pelicans

Just as Zion Williamson was displaying his skills at a supreme level on the big stage, the injury bug bit him again.

The New Orleans Pelicans will be without Williamson on Friday night as they try to land the final Western Conference playoff berth when they host the Sacramento Kings in the loser-goes-home play-in game.

The winner advances to face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.

Williamson was thriving with 40 points and 11 rebounds before exiting with a left hamstring injury with 3:13 remaining in Tuesday’s 110-106 play-in loss to the visiting Los Angeles Lakers.

He underwent an MRI exam on Wednesday and will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Before the 23-year-old Williamson was hurt, he was playing at the level that has been forecasted since he was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2019.

But now New Orleans will have to navigate Friday’s crucial game without Williamson, who was 17-of-27 shooting against the Lakers.

“It’s tough,” Pelicans forward Trey Murphy III said. “Especially with all of the work he’s put in (to get healthy). You wish the best for him. It definitely sucks.”

Williamson played in a career-high 70 games this season, but New Orleans has learned to play without him as he participated in just 114 games over his first four NBA seasons.

It will be time to do that again against Sacramento if the Pelicans plan to reach the postseason for just the second time in the past six seasons.

“It’s next man up. That’s how we’ve been all year,” New Orleans forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “Different guys have missed different games for various reasons. Such is the NBA. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”

The Kings certainly aren’t shedding a tear for the Pelicans, not after losing all five regular-season meetings with New Orleans.

Four of the five contests were decided by double digits, including a 129-93 beatdown in New Orleans on Nov. 20 and a 133-100 romp in Sacramento on Jan. 7. The Pelicans also beat the Kings by 10 during the in-season tournament quarterfinals.

“We’re 0-and-5 against that team, and at some point you have to let it hang and you got to go beat a team that’s beaten you,” Kings star De’Aaron Fox said. “It’s hard to beat a team six times in a row.”

Fox and double-double machine Domantas Sabonis are the Sacramento stars, but sharpshooter Keegan Murray was the standout in a 118-94 victory over the visiting Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night in an elimination game.

Murray buried eight 3-pointers and had 32 points and nine rebounds to fuel the convincing victory.

Next on the agenda is figuring out how to dispatch the Pelicans.

“You want to talk about a monkey on your back,” Murray said. “New Orleans has had our number the whole year. We have to figure out how to contain them and contain their main guys.

“It’s a big matchup for us to try to get into the playoffs against a team that has beaten us five times.”

The Kings wobbled down the stretch of the regular season with just four victories in 11 games. They also lost starter Kevin Huerter to a season-ending shoulder surgery and sixth man extraordinaire Malik Monk (knee) for at least the first round of the postseason if they qualify.

Sacramento coach Mike Brown knows the Pelicans won’t feel sorry about his team’s absences when their top weapon is on the sideline.

“They’re still a very, very good team,” Brown said of New Orleans being without Williamson. “At the end of the day, we’re down two guys who score a lot for us. … (Brandon Ingram) will probably be more aggressive with Zion out. They have guys who are aggressive and guys who have been in that position before.”