It all comes down to this.
After successfully fending off the Timberwolves 100-88 on Sunday night, the Pelicans find themselves a win away from playing in the postseason.
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An Oklahoma City loss on Wednesday would lead to the same result, but the Timberwolves to pulling that upset is about as likely as Luke Babbitt getting a haircut.
So for New Orleans to clinch a berth in the postseason, they must face off on Wednesday night against the division rival San Antonio Spurs.
Nov 25, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at the AT&T Center. San Antonio beat New Orleans 112-93. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
The Pels have actually faired well against the Spurs this season, winning 2 of their 3 matchups thus far.
In fact, they would be sitting at 3-0 had Omer Asik not accidentally tipped in San Antonio’s last ditch effort on New Year’s Eve.
Unfortunately, those results must be taken with a grain of salt.
Because while THAT Spurs team might have been a fringe playoff team, the one playing right now is an entirely different entity.
These Spurs have won 21 of their last 24 games, including a 13 game winning streak that will still be alive when they arrive in New Orleans for Wednesday’s game.
When broadcasters and analysts talk about teams “getting hot at the right time”, this is exactly what they are talking about.
What kept this team from reaching this point earlier on in the season was the absence of Kawhi Leonard.
The 2014 Finals Most Valuable Player did not look like himself to start off the season. He was still locking down his opponents on defense, but his killer shot making ability that was on display for all of the last post season had vanished.
The struggle turned to injury when Leonard tore a ligament in his shooting hand in the middle of December. In the 15 games he missed, the Spurs played under-.500 ball (7-8) and lost 6 of 7 games at one point.
As a Pelicans fan, I was salivating at the opportunity for New Orleans to jump over the finally declining Spurs.
But as an NBA fan, I should have known better.
Through this Kawhi-less period, and really the entire season, the man that kept the ship afloat is the one that has been doing so for 18 years: Tim Duncan.
Dec 26, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) goes up for a basket in front of New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik (3) in the first quarter at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
The Big Fundamental is somehow having one of the most efficient seasons he has ever had, no small feat for a 38 year old.
He is matching his career average in assists (3 per game), out shooting his career field goal percentage (.510 to .506), and is still averaging 2 blocks per game, good for 5th in the league.
The consistency of Duncan, as it has for nearly my entire lifetime, has put the Spurs in position to match up with the league’s best.
In this last stretch of games, Duncan has been able to hold back a bit mostly thanks to the reemergence of the two-way threat version of Leonard.
In his last 15 games, Leonard is averaging 19 points per game, shooting 55% from the field, and 42% from three. That kind of production paired with arguably the best perimeter defense in the league is quite frankly a bit unfair.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, they have an unfair advantage of their own: Anthony Davis.
When AD put up massive numbers to start the season, most applauded them, but many figured they would be unsustainable over a longer sample size.
Going into the 82nd and final game of the season, a picture of one man waiting for this drop has come to light:
Davis’ PER of 31.06 this season sits just outside of the top 10 marks of all time. A great game from Davis on Wednesday (which is just what the Pelicans will need) could put him in that elite group. 24 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks per game are fantastic numbers, but they alone will not be enough to tackle the mighty Spurs.
The Pelicans may not have seen the final form of the Spurs, but the same can be said going the other way.
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The Spurs, and pretty much every other team in the league, have yet to face the Pelicans when Davis, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday are all available.
San Antonio is a team that prides itself on continuity, a trait that the Pelicans just want to have a taste of.
Holiday has finally returned to action after missing 41 games with his leg injury. His presence on the court has already been noticeable, given his innate ability to cause problems on defense.
Not many guards have the quickness and presence of mind to contain the crafty Tony Parker, but Jrue is one of them. Forcing tough shots and decisions from the man that runs the show is a good place for the Pelicans to start.
Apr 10, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) against the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
He has kept his shooting volume low so far, a fair choice given how long he has been out.
Just having him on the floor as a possible threat is a gift for the Pelicans, who despite having multiple players capable of carrying the scoring load, sometimes falter on the offensive end.
Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter will most likely bear the burden of being defended by Kawhi Leonard.
For Evans, the key to surviving this matchup is to limit mistakes and turnovers. Even in games where his turnover numbers are low, Tyreke has a tendency to force some wild shots.
Granted, he has shown the ability to knock them down, but that feat will become nearly impossible when blanketed by the length of Leonard.
It will be up to the other guys on the perimeter like Pondexter, Gordon, Anderson and Holiday to move without the ball and open up more open shot opportunities.
Taking as many open shots as possible should be a key in any game, but the Pels will really need every basket they can get against the Spurs.
Even though they could not hang on to the game against Houston, New Orleans showed a lot of great things on the offensive end.
One play that stood out to me in particular was a play where Norris Cole had a wide open corner three attempt, but he quickly swung it around to the equally wide open Ryan Anderson, who sank the shot.
Sure, Cole might have been criticized for giving up such an efficient shot, but that is the risk necessary to beat good teams.
That three helped kick start Ryno’s 15 point first half, a performance that helped keep New Orleans in the game. Leonard and Danny Green are ferocious perimeter defenders, so quick ball movement to find the open man is a must.
The pieces are finally in place for this New Orleans team.
They will face a huge test on Wednesday night. If they can beat one of the West’s best one more time, they deserve to make the playoffs (and will).
Quite frankly, I am tired of ESPN headlining with the heroic Russell Westbrook. I personally cannot wait to see how they and the rest of the NBA fans react when the Pelicans shock the world…..