The race for the 8-seed in the Western Conference between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans has come down to the wire, and the finish looks like it’s going to be extremely close.
Since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were both seriously injured in training camp, the Thunder have spent this season on the most famous chase for a playoff 8-seed of all time, while the Pelicans have been getting consistently overlooked despite being right behind OKC for most of the season while also missing two of their best players for long stretches (Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson).
No more. The Pellies finally surpassed the Thunder this week, however briefly, for the 8-seed, and the two teams now find themselves tied after New Orleans lost to Memphis on Wednesday night with four games to play. A tie works in favor of the Pelicans, who own the tiebreaker with the Thunder thanks to Anthony Davis’s ridiculous double-clutch, buzzer-beating three-pointer against OKC in early February––the only three he’s made all season.
That shot won both the game and the season series for NOLA, which means if the two teams remain tied after the final game of the season, the Pelicans will be the ones celebrating while the Thunder find themselves SOL one more time this year.
Making that happen won’t be easy for New Orleans, however. Both teams have four games remaining, but Oklahoma City has the much easier schedule, with home games against the Kings and Blazers and road games versus the Pacers and Timberwolves. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have to handle home games against the Suns and Spurs with road affairs versus the Rockets and Timberwolves.
Each team has a road game in Minnesota, so in terms of difficulty, those games should offset one another. Taking that into consideration, the Kings, Blazers, and Pacers seem like a far more ideal trio of opponents than the Suns, Spurs and Rockets.
Phoenix will be narrowly missing the playoffs for a second-straight season, and this year, it will be in favor of New Orleans, so you can bet Jeff Hornacek’s team will be up for that game. Meanwhile, Houston is currently trying to hold off San Antonio, who have played their way to just a .5 game back of both Houston and Memphis. The Pelicans can safely assume that they’ll be getting each of those teams’ best efforts.
That’s a tough mix to face, especially compared to a lineup of the limping-to-another-disappointing-season Sacramento Kings, an Eastern Conference team and the Blazers. At this point, though, it seems foolish to again doubt New Orleans’ ability to surprise and sustain.
One thing the Pelicans have going for them––and one thing the Thunder definitely do not––is the healthy return of an important player. Ryan Anderson came back about a week ago, and even thought he hasn’t shot the ball well this season, his reputation alone does more for spacing that anyone else Monty Williams has had playing all season, and this is a team that badly needs offensive spacing. The power forward also gives them not just added frontcourt, something else they badly need. Alexis Ajinca looks a lot better as a fourth big man.
The Thunder, on the other hand, have been faltering. Russell Westbrook is running out of gas, and this team has been uncompetitive more often than they’ve been competitive in games recently. San Antonio ran them out of the building from the very beginning the other night, so perhaps a playoff-hungry team like the Pacers could unexpectedly knock off OKC in Indianapolis. Couple that with a loss to the Blazers (very possible), and then the Thunder are facing must-win games as they must get past the Pelicans to get in. If the two teams simply tie, OKC is out.
New Orleans’ best bet, then, is to keep the pressure on Oklahoma City. If the Pelicans can just go 2-2 in their next four games, and they’re 42-36 now, they will force the Thunder to finish at a 3-1 clip to get in, and that could be difficult for a team that’s lost 5 of its last 6 games.
Oklahoma City has the advantage with the schedule, but New Orleans has the personnel advantage and seems to be peaking at the right time. Despite the hard, resilient work both teams have put it all season, as last year’s Spurs and Pacers teams showed us plainly, that “peaking” part is important, so given that they own the tie-breaker, this could finally be the Pelicans’ race to lose.