The good news? Ever since being written off by the national media, the Pelicans have looked like a real basketball team. The bad news? That team that the Pelicans are supposed to beat out for the eighth seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder, have looked even better.
The title of this article is undoubtedly click bait, except that its not. The Western Conference is absolutely stacked this year. Currently, the Pelicans and Suns are tied in the West with .500 records. I have said continuously that, barring major injuries, if the Pelicans make it to January with a record close to .500, then the Pelicans will make the playoffs. (Even though I said at the start of the season that they would miss the playoffs). Unfortunately, with the events that transpired this week, I am now backtracking once again.
If any team was going to miss the playoffs, allowing the Pelicans to sneak in as the eighth seed, it would have been the Thunder or Mavericks. Welp, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both made miraculous comebacks. Since their return, the Thunder are 8-3. Oh, and that other team, the Dallas Mavericks, just got one of the better PG’s in the league in Rajon Rondo.
That is why this game may be the single most important December game ever for the Pelicans. Winning this game inherently means a Thunder loss. Thus, unlike a normal win-lose outcome, a win over the Thunder is essentially two wins. In the Western Conference, where making the playoffs seems like it will come down to one win or one loss, stealing two wins in one game is a very big deal.
Alas, we should all remember that while making the playoffs would be awesome, it is not the end all be all of a season. If the Pelicans come out of this season with a vastly improved team, I think they can still call this year a success.
The X Factor
The Pelicans have been playing their best basketball of the year in the last 5 games, not counting last night (Sorry, no. I'm just not.) It is coming at the perfect time, as this stretch is the hardest and most important that they will arguably face all year. Anthony Davis is back to MVP-caliber performances, and if the Pelicans want to steal this game from the Thunder, Davis will need to keep up his other worldly play.
Tyreke Evans missed the game against the Rockets, but did play against the Blazers...if you want to call it that. He will be the Pelicans X factor against the Thunder. Evans has had a very up and down season, but lately his play has been more up than down. Plus, let us not forget that he went toe to toe with the Thunder’s perennial great player, Russell Westbrook. Pelicans fans should send all that good Voodoo Mojo towards Tyreke in hopes that he can conjure some of that layup magic for this game.
If Evans is the Pelicans X factor, then for the Thunder it's Reggie Jackson. The Pelicans don’t really have an answer for Jackson off the bench or playing with the second unit. If the Pelicans want to slow down Mr. Jackson, they will need Austin Rivers to live up to his name. He must be tenacious in defending Jackson and hit shots when called upon. Luckily, Austin, like Tyreke, has been playing well of late, during an otherwise roller-coaster type of season.
The Thunder Roll
Not too much new to say about the Thunder. They have been a great NBA team for the past 5 seasons, despite getting robbed in trades. To start this season, the Thunder lost their two best players, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and proceeded to be unsurprisingly bad. Then those two All-Star players came back, right before their first match with the Pelicans of course, and the Thunder resumed being frighteningly good.
Not to help the situation, the Pelicans have to face the Thunder off a back to back. So the Thunder should win right? Well not so fast. Kevin Durant twisted his ankle against the Warriors and missed last night's game against the Lakers. At this time, his status for Sunday is up in the air.
In addition, we learned at the start of this month that Asik matches up fairly well against the Thunder. Due to our versatility and size inside, the Thunder can't use their special formation, which slots Durant in the PF position, very well. Durant can usually terrorize some slow footed power forward, but that most definitely won't be the case against the Pelicans.
Thunder or Lightning?
Pelicans vs Thunder is a dead even match-up in my opinion; however, the Thunder are at home so they should have the edge. Understandably, much will depend on Kevin Durant's status.
Further, come April, this might be a game we look at as the deciding factor on whether the Pelicans can make the playoffs. If I had been Monty, which trust me I’m glad I’m not, I would have considered going full Popovich and resting my stars against the Blazers. Well, as it turned out, none of our starters played more than 30 minutes in last night's blowout. Tired legs should not be an issue.
For an OKC perspective, please check out the homies at Loud City.