Pelicans and Thunder Ready to Race for the 8th Seed


Seventy eight games have been played across seven months in the 2014-2015 NBA season. New Orleans and Oklahoma City both sit at 42-36. As far as these teams are concerned, they might as well be 0-0. The final four games of the season will determine who heads to Golden State and who heads home until next season.

Pressure? As if. This run to the playoffs is only the most exciting stretch of basketball in the Bayou since 2010-2011 and just might be the kick start the local fans need to full heartedly buy into the Pelicans. And Oklahoma City is trying to grab hold of what may be the last remaining shreds of the Durant-Westbrook era.

Oh wait.. There IS a lot of pressure!

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The final stretch is quite simple: Both teams have four games remaining, and the Pelicans control the tiebreaker.

The magic number is four. Across these eight games, wins by the Pels and losses from the Thunder will lower this number. If New Orleans win total is greater than or equal to OKC’s they will advance. Any other result will send the Thunder to the playoffs.

The Schedules

New Orleans:

  • Phoenix Suns, Friday April 10th
  • Houston Rockets, Sunday April 12th
  • Minnesota Timberwolves, Monday April 13th
  • San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday April 15th
  • Total Record: 161-153 (.512 Win %)

Oklahoma City:

  • Sacramento Kings, Friday April 10th
  • Indiana Pacers, Sunday April 12th
  • Portland Trail Blazers, Monday April 13th
  • Minnesota Timberwolves, Wednesday April 15th
  • Total Record: 129-183 (.413 Win %)

In terms of schedule strength, the Thunder have a clear edge.

Both teams face off against the lowly Timberwolves.  I believe the lone break New Orleans gets here is that they play Minny on the second night of a back to back. As seen in last night’s 110-74 thrashing from the Memphis Grizzlies, tired legs are an issue against tough opponents. Even on an off night the Pels should be able to take care of the Wolves here.

With that said, that game is their only easy matchup. Phoenix has been racking up the L’s in recent weeks, but part of that can be attributed to their brutal schedule. Despite their questionable moves at the trade deadline, the remain an explosive team capable of lighting up the scoreboard on any given night.

Their season series with the Pels is tied 1-1. The Suns took a 74-72 slugfest in mid March while the Pels won a 110-106 shootout on December 30th. It is reasonable to think the score of this game will fall somewhere between those two.

Dec 18, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham (44) is guarded by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the second half at Toyota Center. New Orleans Pelicans won 99 to 90. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The James Harden led Houston Rockets are intimidating. They have won 10 of their last thirteen, and the play on both sides of the floor shows no signs of faltering, especially with the return of Dwight Howard to the lineup. Despite Houston’s current position at the 2 seed in the West, the Pelicans have handled them well this season.

The Pels hold the series lead 2-1, and blew a lead late to lose the one game only two weeks ago. The keys in these games? Limiting Harden’s attempts at the free throw line. Harden is averaging an insane 10.2 free throws a game and knocks down about 87% of them on the season. However against New Orleans that narrative changes.

In the lone Rockets victory this season, Harden hit only 6-9 free throws. In the two Pels wins, he combined to hit 3-5 attempts! The man who is averaging 10 attempts a game only has 14 in three contests against New Orleans. If the Pels want to steal this game, they have to continue limiting Harden’s opportunities.

The most unpredictable matchup lies against the San Antonio Spurs. Earlier in the season, the reigning champions were chugging along and looked as if they might have lost their mojo again.

By now, we should know better.

Mar 24, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Spurs 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With Kawhi Leonard finally readjusted to the lineup, the Spurs have been a buzz saw for nearly every opponent. They have won twelve of their last thirteen games by an average of 18 points! Victims include OKC, Houston, Memphis and the Atlanta Hawks. When coach Greg Popovich leads his team into the Smoothie King Center, they could be riding an eleven game winning streak.

However the Spurs have a tendency to rest their main guys regardless of that game’s implications. With the Pelicans matchup lined up to be their last, Coach Pop just might help out his former protégé Monty Williams. If they do not rest the guys, New Orleans will have quite the task ahead of them in this rejuvenated Western Conference Power.

Oklahoma City plays the Wolves to end their season. Brow-willing, by the time this game gets underway the Pels will have already taken fate into their own hands.

Anything can happen in the Thunder’s last four games because of one problem: defense. This team needs every bit of what Russell Westbrook has been giving them because quite frankly they cannot stop anybody on the other end. They are giving up just a tick over 100 points per game over their last 12 games, and that includes a 75 point outing from the Miami Heat.

Indiana and Sacramento are not offensive juggernauts by any means, but expect an all out effort from both franchises.

Indiana is in the midst of a playoff race of their own. With Paul George back on the floor, who knows how they will be able to finish the season. If their best player from the last couple of season can get the gears spinning, Indiana may be a tougher opponent than they have been for most of the 2014-2015 season.

Sacramento does not have Paul George, but they DO have Sim Bhullar. Although he may not get more than a couple minutes of playing time until the game is already over, look out. The 7’5″ Indian big man scored his first points on a slick post move last night in his lone minute of action, leaving his scoring per 36 minutes at a prodigious 72! You have been warned.

Apr 8, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Sacramento Kings center Sim Bhullar (32) dribbles the ball as Utah Jazz forward Jack Cooley (45) defends during the fourth quarter at EnergySolutions Arena. Utah Jazz on the game 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

While Bhullar is a fun story for the league, he is not the center New Orleans should be worrying about. Demarcus Cousins is finishing off an incredible season where he has average 24 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He is currently battling some foot problems though, so he may not be there to help the Pels out against OKC.

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Despite the loss of Wes Matthews the Trail Blazers have been able to hold it together. As long as the Damian Lillard-Lamrcus Aldridge duo is still kicking, they will have the firepower to out score any team.

Unfortunately, the Thunder will not have to travel to Portland for the game where the Blazers fans always create a remarkable atmosphere. Nonetheless, this game will be the toughest task for the Thunder down the final stretch.

The Key Injuries

New Orleans:

  • Jrue Holiday

Oklahoma City:

  • Kevin Durant
  • Serge Ibaka
  • Andre Roberson

Despite the teasing from within the organization over the past couple of weeks Jrue Holiday has yet to return from his aggravated leg injury. He is on his way to missing 45 games this season, a tough pill to swallow considering he is such a valuable asset to the team. If Jrue can somehow get healthy if the Pelicans do make a run, he should be more than welcome to lace ’em up and get back out there.

Jan 7, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) reacts during the first half of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder have been so badly bitten by the injury bug late in the season that if they still make the playoffs, they 100% deserve it.

Star Kevin Durant was in and out of the lineup for most of the season before finally being declared out for the remainder of the year.

Injuries to Ibaka and Roberson came soon after, and although they are not nearly as serious, the Thunder would prefer to have as much talent on the floor as possible to secure their postseason position.

The X-Factors

At the end of the day, the playoff race is going to come down to two guys: Davis and Westbrook.

As discussed a month ago, both players are having phenomenal seasons and neither has slowed down. They have their own ways of impacting the game, but they will be equally as important across each of their final four games.

For one of these teams, basketball season is about to be over. For the other, it is not. Plain and simple.

The fans are going to have to just watch and find out……

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