Heat down Butler, Pels down Zion: What to know about Friday's play-in games

The NBA play-in tournament has already taken its toll on the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans, all of whom suffered significant injuries earlier this week.

The Heat will be without star Jimmy Butler, who led them to the NBA Finals a year ago, but suffered an MCL injury that is expected to keep him out for weeks. The Pelicans will be without star Zion Williamson, who scored 40 points in his postseason debut Tuesday night, before suffering a hamstring injury that has knocked him out. And Bulls guard Alex Caruso was limited to 21 minutes after an ankle sprain, but is a game-time decision. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings got through their play-in game unscathed, but are dealing with multiple lineup altering injuries.

Despite all that, two of those teams will advance to the NBA playoffs with wins on Friday night, so here’s a look at what to know for these two play-in matchups.


Bulls at Heat, 7 p.m. ET

In a rematch from the 2023 play-in game, the Bulls and Heat will meet again in Miami for the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference. Chicago had a three-point lead with three minutes remaining in last year’s matchup before Miami ended the game on 15-1 surge, starting a postseason run to the NBA Finals. The two teams split their four meetings during the regular season.

How Jimmy Butler’s injury changes things for Miami

To have any hopes of a deep playoff run or making it back to the Finals, the Heat were counting not only on Butler to be on the floor but to transform into “Playoff Jimmy,” who has become an annual spring tradition. Butler averaged 20 points on 50% shooting this season and he’s one of nine players (min. 100 playoff games) to have his career averages in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks increase in the playoffs. Since Butler’s first season in Miami in 2019-20, he has scored more playoff points than anyone in the NBA other than Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum.

So the Heat face a tall task to replace him. Miami was able to salvage some regular-season wins without him, going 13-9 when Butler was absent, but it is not the same team. The Heat score 116.0 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the floor and 108.7 points per 100 possessions without him.

How Alex Caruso’s injury changes things for Chicago

Chicago received some hopeful injury news heading into Friday’s game with increasing optimism Caruso will be available. The Bulls have weathered injuries to key players all season — Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams both missed most of the second half and needed season-ending surgery — leaving a heavy workload for DeMar DeRozan and Coby White (who were No. 1 and No. 3 in the NBA in total minutes in the regular season) to carry the offense.

But Caruso shoulders much of Chicago’s defensive responsibilities. The Bulls have a 110.6 defensive rating when Caruso is on the court, a number that jumps to 117.0 when he’s off. Caruso, who is in line to make his second straight All-Defensive team, ranks second (Lu Dort) in defensive half-court matchups vs 2024 All-Stars, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Caruso had been dealing with foot issues down the stretch of the 2023-24 season, an issue that was aggravated when Andre Drummond stepped on his foot Wednesday. But the swelling stayed down in his left ankle, and he’s expected to be a game-time decision.

What’s waiting for the winner

The winner of Friday’s game will visit the well-rested, top-seeded Celtics, a matchup no team wants to play short-handed. Boston swept the season series 3-0 against Miami (in what would be a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals) and also went 3-0 against Chicago.

–Jamal Collier

Kings at Pelicans, 9:30 p.m. ET

The Pelicans had the Kings’ number this season. They went 5-0 against Sacramento — an extra game thanks to the in-season tournament — and won those games by an average of 19.2 points. In the one game New Orleans played without Williamson, the Pelicans won 133-100.

How Williamson’s injury changes things for New Orleans

To say Williamson has been playing his best basketball of his career lately might be an understatement. His 40-point, 11-rebound performance Tuesday night helped rally the Pelicans from an 18-point deficit against the Lakers, and many around the team believed they would have completed the comeback had Williamson not been injured.

Instead, the Pelicans have to go into Friday’s game without Williamson. This season, New Orleans went 7-5 in games Williamson missed. In nine of those games, the Pelicans had a healthy Brandon Ingram, who increased his scoring slightly to 22.8 points per game — up from 20.5 in the 55 games he played with Williamson.

With Williamson out, the Pelicans will have to rely on an even bigger game from Ingram, who has been dealing with an injury. Ingram returned on Sunday after missing the previous 12 games with a bone bruise in his left knee. In his two games back against the Lakers, Ingram had just 24 points total and wasn’t on the floor for the final seven-plus minutes in the play-in game.

For the Pelicans to advance, they will need the Ingram of old. Willie Green told reporters on Thursday that Ingram was in early on Wednesday to shake off the rust.

How injuries changed things for the Kings

While the Kings managed to avoid any play-in tournament injuries, they weren’t immune to them at the end of the regular season. Sacramento finished with a record just two games worse than a season ago — 46-34 — but because of the West, it meant dropping from the No. 3 seed all the way to No. 9 and the play-in game.

Part of the late-season dip was playing without Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malik Monk (sprained right MCL) for the final nine games and Kevin Huerter (torn left labrum) for the final 15.

With Huerter out of the starting lineup, Sacramento turned to Keon Ellis to provide a boost. In 15 games — all starts — Ellis averaged 9.8 points and shot 44.6% from 3 while hitting 2.2 attempts. Eight of those came in one game against Oklahoma City. In the play-in win against the Golden State Warriors, Ellis had 15 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals and three blocks in 39 minutes.

Sacramento has also gotten more from second-year guard Keegan Murray, who had 32 points against the Warriors, which would have been tied for the third most he’s had in a game in his career. Murray finished the regular season with 14 consecutive games of making at least two 3-pointers, nearly doubling his previous best streak of eight games. He followed that up with eight triples against Golden State.

What’s waiting for the winner

No matter who wins, neither team will be at their best against the Thunder in the first round. The Kings split the season series with the Thunder, with Oklahoma City pulling out a seven-point victory late in the season. New Orleans, for its part, went 1-2 against the Thunder this season, including a 119-112 loss without Ingram on March 26.

–Andrew Lopez

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