Who to face Wolves and try to win the last qualifying ticket for the playoffs in the West? Answer this evening at the end of this confrontation between two teams that we did not necessarily expect at this level with regard to their respective seasons, and the expectations linked to each formation.
The Pelicans have indeed had a very solid start to the season, even occupying first place in the Western Conference for a few days, at the very end of 2022.
Willie Green’s men managed to stay in the Top 4 of this ranking until the end of January before falling sharply. A fall that coincided with the loss of Zion Williamson.
Pushed back to 12th place in mid-March, the Pelicans had to work hard to find the Top 10 and finally land, like last year, in 9th place. Just behind them, with two less victories, we therefore find this Thunder, yet promised at the start of the season for a new galley season.
But unlike other young teams in the league, OKC played the competition card thoroughly. Without ever inviting themselves beyond 8th place in the West, the Thunder did not experience a major air hole and could even have finished with their first balance sheet in the positive since 2020 and the flash passage of Chris Paul.
PRESENTATION OF THE PELICANS
Holders : Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, Jonas Valanciunas
The replacements Naji Marshall, Larry Nance Jr, Dyson Daniels, Josh Richardson, Willy Hernangomez, Jaxson Hayes, Garrett Temple, Kira Lewis Jr.
The absents Zion Williamson, Jose Alvarado
The coach : Willie Green
The strong point
– The play-in experience. And just experience because CJ McCollum or Jonas Valanciunas already have several playoff campaigns in their legs. Brandon Ingram only discovered the finals last year after carrying the Pelicans during this same play-in process. The former Lakers player had planted 27 points against the young Spurs, then 30 units against the Clippers. Once this qualification acquired, the Pelicans had done everything except figuration against the Suns in the first round (4-2). All without Zion Williamson, already.
The weak point
– A lack of creators. With nearly 26 assists generated each night, NOLA is not far from the Top 10 of the most distributing teams in the championship. This does not detract from the fact that his offense relies heavily on the creative power of CJ McCollum who, we recall, played position 2 alongside Damian Lillard in Portland, and Brandon Ingram. Behind them, the candidates to wear the leather and create the game are few. Especially since the very useful substitute in the lead, Jose Alvarado, who has not played for a month due to discomfort in the tibia, will be absent.
Holders : Luguentz Dort, Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Jaylin Williams
The substitutes : Isaiah Joe, Aaron Wiggins, Tre Mann, Dario Saric, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Ousmane Dieng, Aleksej Pokusevski?
The absents : Kenrich Williams, Chet Holmgren
The coach : Mark Daigneault
The strong point
– Nothing to lose. Climbing to this stage of the competition is already a nice little feat for the team coached by Mark Daigneault. The youngest team in the league, the Thunder can therefore approach this playoff game without real pressure. Even if, to reread the declarations of “SGA” last January (“ I think we will become a very good team, much sooner than people think. […] I observe this progression every day. I’ve seen this growth over the last five months, the year, the last two years, and I’m thrilled. “), we say to ourselves that he and his band are hungry for victories and still want to surprise.
The weak point
– The interior sector. In the current squad, only one player is considered pivotal: Olivier Sarr. Signatory of a “two-way contract”, the Frenchman certainly finished his season in style (22 points and 15 rebounds) but is not really expected for this meeting. Jaylin Williams and Dario Saric will therefore have to take turns on Jonas Valanciunas who, when fueled by his teammates below, is one of the best attacking pivots in the league. If Willie Green decides to insist with him from the start of the meeting on the “pick-and-roll” and the “pick-and-pop”, it can hurt Thunder side, moreover the team which leaves the most rebounds to his opponents.
THE KEY TO THE MATCH
– The defensive strategy against “SGA”. Averaging more than 31 points, the league’s fourth-leading scorer should be the center of attention on the Pelicans defense. New Orleans has some good dark-task specialists, including Herb Jones, to slow down the superstar opposite, who has still averaged 33.5 points against this team in four meetings this season. Facing him, defenders have every interest in backing down, almost inviting him to shoot 3-pointers (34.5% this season and low volume with 2.5 attempts per game) because “SGA” is formidable in penetration, to create contact, and one of the most prolific players in racquet. But beware, limiting his offensive production is not synonymous with guaranteed victory because youngsters Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams have shown this season that they can be more than foils.
November 28: Pelicans –Thunder (105-101)
December 23: Thunder – Pelicans (125-128 AP)
February 13: Thunder – Pelicans (100-103)
March 11: Pelicans – Thunder (96-110)
Pelicans. The Thunder may have the better player, but the Pelicans, in addition to enjoying the home field advantage, seem to be more complete, and much more experienced. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have already been there and have already responded to this last year. To win, despite two or even three major absences, the Pelicans will have to contain a maximum “SGA” and the enthusiasm of a team that will present itself without complex.
At 3:30 a.m., Wednesday night through Thursday.