Pelicans vs. Spurs play-in game: Three things to watch as New Orleans tries to ride red-hot offense

Be honest, this isn’t who you expected to be here, is it? Until their last breath, a small part of us all likely assumed that a suddenly healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis would use this play-in game as a launching point for a postseason run. But a combination of injuries and incompetence doomed the Los Angeles Lakers. There will be no purple and gold in this year’s play-in round.

Instead, we have two of the sort of teams more typically expected to land in this range. Young up-and-comers not quite ready for serious contention, but eager to dip their toes into the playoff waters. The Pelicans and Spurs now find themselves two games away from the playoffs. Here’s everything you need to know as they get set to duke it out for their survival.

(9) Pelicans vs. (10) Spurs

  • When: Wednesday, April 13 | 9:30 pm ET
  • Where: Smoothie King Center — New Orleans, Louisiana
  • TV: ESPN | Livestream: fuboTV (try for free)
  • odds: SA +170; NOP -200; O/U 229 (via Caesars Sportsbook)

Featured Game | New Orleans Pelicans vs. San Antonio Spurs

1. Does the red-hot Pelicans offense sustain into the postseason?

The Pelicans have had the NBA’s No. 9 ranked offense since the trade deadline, but that doesn’t quite do justice to how good they’ve been considering the injuries they’ve dealt with. When CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram have been on the floor together, the Pelicans are scoring over 119 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. It makes logical sense. McCollum, Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas represent a very diverse set of offensive weapons that all enhance one another. Put them together and a stellar offense should follow.

Scoring gets harder in the postseason. The Pelicans are among the best transition offenses in basketball. Those easy points aren’t going to be as available. The Spurs can throw star defenders in Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl at McCollum and Valanciunas. Gregg Popovich is going to cook up interesting ways of making their lives miserable.

Scoring a bunch of points in the regular season isn’t exactly easy, but it’s doable. That’s especially true in March and April, when weary contenders and blatant tankers aren’t going to match the energy of a team desperately fighting to reach the play-in round. But the Pelicans are here now, and we’re about to find out how much of what they’ve done over the past few months translates to a more competitive setting.

2. This is the least experienced Spurs team in recent memory

For most of the Gregg Popovich era, the Spurs could survive the rare occasions in which they were outgunned in raw talent based off of gumption and veteran know-how alone. The Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili trio played so many big games together that they could virtually get through them on autopilot. Even over the past few years, the Spurs have had DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to lean on in big moments.

But now? It’s sink-or-swim time for the young Spurs. Devin Vassell, Tre Jones and Josh Primo have never played in the playoffs. Neither has Keldon Johnson, though in fairness, he did just play for Team USA at the Olympics. Dejounte Murray and Josh Richardson have a bit more experience under their belt, but among the regulars, only Zach Collins has reached a conference finals. Nobody in the rotation has even 800 total playoff minutes under their belt.

This is a play-in game, not Game 7 of the Finals, and the Pelicans obviously have quite a few youngsters of their own making their first foray into postseason basketball. But New Orleans can lean on McCollum and Valanciunas when the game inevitably slows down. The Spurs lack that quintessential veteran that thrives in big moments like this. If they make it through this game, it’s going to be because some of their younger players rise to the moment.

3. Is this the end for Gregg Popovich?

Well… there’s one established veteran in San Antonio. He just isn’t wearing a uniform. Gregg Popovich might have enough big-game experience for his whole team, especially against a first-year coach, but at this stage it’s worth wondering how many more rodeos Popovich is going to stick around for.

The five-time NBA champion broke the league’s all-time wins record earlier this season. His Spurs have n’t reached the playoffs since 2019 and he’s 73 years old. Sooner or later, he’s going to hand the reins off to someone else. With that wins record now in the books, “sooner” might be the safe bet.

If this play-in bout is indeed Popovich’s last game, he’ll retire as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Only Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach coached more championship teams. Popovich won a gold medal last summer. He’s coached several Hall of Famers and will one day be enshrined himself. So enjoy his gruff sideline interviews on Wednesday, because if the Spurs lose, there’s no guarantee we ever see another one.

Prediction

Since Dec. 15, the Pelicans are 28-25. The Spurs, in that same period, are 24-32. New Orleans got off to an abysmal start, but has generally been a playoff-caliber team ever since. San Antonio, on the other hand, is really only here because the play-in bylaws dictate that 10 teams from each conference reach the postseason. There is a gap here, and with home-court advantage, the Pelicans should exploit it. The pick: Pelicans -5

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