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Thunder and Pelicans Race to the Finish

Oklahoma City and New Orleans are neck and neck as the regular season comes to a close…

The Thunder have won 34 games. The Pelicans have won 33 games. The Thunder have lost 28 games; so have the Pelicans. The Thunder boast Russell Westbrook, whose historic month of February put him in conversation with names like Pete Maravich, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Not even a dent in the face could stop him; on the contrary, it only inflamed his need for triple-doubles. The Pelicans, though, boast Anthony Davis, whose own return from injury against the Detroit Pistons included 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks, three assists and two steals. Not bad. Also, his team won the game.

Both these teams are also awaiting players returning from further injury—it’s always injury!—as the Pelicans anticipate key reserve Ryan Anderson, while the Thunder wait, once again, for the return of reigning MVP Kevin Durant. There’s no definite timeline for either player, but it seems like both guys should be back in the next couple weeks. Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday is also on the shelf, but the prognosis on the stress reaction in his right leg isn’t as optimistic.

There are lot of similarities between these two teams: star power, injured rosters, desire to make the playoffs. But what separates them? And who has the ultimate edge?

Schedule. This is almost dead even here, with each team facing its pros and cons. Here’s how OKC’s schedule ends: eight games against Western Conference playoff teams, three games against top-four Eastern Conference teams, with 13 remaining home games and seven remaining road games. The Pelicans, by contrast, play eight games against Western Conference playoff teams, zero games against top-four Eastern Conference teams, with 10 remaining home games and 11 remaining road games.

The difference, then, is that while Oklahoma City plays tougher competition, the Thunder also play two-thirds of their remaining games in the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena. OKC and New Orleans have fairly similar home and away records; the Thunder are 20-8 at home, 14-20 on the road, the Pelicans 21-10 at home, 12-18 on the road.

You can look at this a million different ways, but whatever lens you wear to see it, the fact is that neither team has a palpable schedule advantage.

Reinforcements. This is where, for me, the differences start. I know Anthony Davis is really good, and I know the Thunder have been playing well with Westbrook leading the charge, but when Kevin Durant is healthy he’s still—despite James Harden, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and even Russell Westbrook—arguably the best, most lethal player in the league. That kind of boost, along with what Westbrook is doing and a healthy sense of urgency, is what could push the Thunder to close this race out with authority.

X-Factor. The other nod to Oklahoma City, aside from the—hopefully—impending return of Durant, is the fact that this team, this coach, has been here before. They’ve not teetered on the brink of the postseason like this over the last few years, but they’ve faced drama, tension and elimination in a way the Pelicans simply haven’t. You’ve already seen Oklahoma City drop their foot to the pedal, and if it weren’t for a rather freakish three-pointer from Chicago last night, that streak would still be going. Not only have the Thunder retooled, not only are they expecting Durant back, but I don’t suspect they’ll buckle under the weight of intense postseason pressure.

In my mind, the ultimate advantage goes to the Thunder. Although the schedule comparison probably yields a push, OKC loves playing at home. Then, they’re waiting for Durant. And finally, they’ve been in sticky situations before. Anthony Davis hasn’t led a team to the playoffs, nor through the pressure-cooker gauntlet that his team is about to enter.

Whatever happens, happens for the good of basketball. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.

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