Since last night's schedule of games concluded, following twitter has made for some depressed reading. The word melancholy and the Pelicans chances for making the postseason appear to have become synonymous because of the supposed long odds.
Pelicans fans, I have bad news. The Spurs are basically playing to avoid sixth on Wednesday.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 14, 2015
We get it. On Wednesday, the Thunder travel to Minnesota to face the lowly Timberwolves while the Pelicans get to play the hottest team in the NBA, the Spurs. Everyone is already looking ahead and talking about how San Antonio poses the biggest threat to Golden State's chances for making the NBA Finals, so a final regular season matchup with the Pelicans isn't even a blip on the radar. This has been made especially true since everyone expects the Spurs to bring their A game in order to secure the #2 seed in the Western Conference.
Importance of top-2 seed? Under current NBA playoff format (31 yrs), only 5 teams have won title as 3 seed or lower pic.twitter.com/NEQKFLbVm7— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 14, 2015
That's all fine and dandy, but I'm here to tell you the Pelicans' perspective isn't as bleak as you may first assume.
Reasons for Optimism!
1) For the sake of argument, let's assume Gregg Popovich will play all of his regulars. There are some who think it'll make a significant difference the Spurs will be rolling out #FullSquadron for the first time this season.
In the teams' first matchup, the Spurs were missing Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli. In the second and third go-arounds, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard were both out. To varying degrees, they are all important pieces; however, the Pelicans were also missing key ingredients for some if not all of those same games that will be present tomorrow: Eric Gordon, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole. Not consistent game-changers but they are certainly an improvement over the Pelicans rolling with Austin Rivers, Jimmer Fredette and Luke Babbitt.
Here's the thing about San Antonio though, fielding a full roster isn't a prerequisite for a good performance. For about the last three seasons, Popovich has randomly rested key members, and more times than not, it's come against quality opponents. In those games, the Spurs still won or put up one hell of a fight.
Why am I bringing this up? Because the Spurs haven't exclusively relied on their Big 3 for some time now and for good reason. This season, both Parker and Manu Ginobili are having very average statistical seasons. Their most important players now are Tim Duncan, Danny Green and Leonard. As noted earlier, only Kawhi has missed several games against the Pelicans.
We've all heard the phrase, "the whole is greater than the sum of their parts," but thanks to Popovich's system, it's been taken to an entirely different level in San Antonio. One gets the sense that he could mold a D-League team into an NBA playoff team. In the strictest sense, the Spurs have proven to be the most easily replaceable roster in the league. Their players all have roles and they fill them very well.
However, for the non-believers, I'll leave you with this: the Spurs might have been the third best team in the league in November with a +9.7 Net Rating. One of their three losses for that month came against the Pelicans. In the AT&T Center. When Leonard, Duncan, Parker, Green and Ginobili were all present.
2) With the game in New Orleans, the numbers are in favor of the Pelicans. In the Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans have gone 27-13. The Spurs are 22-18 on the road.
Okay, for practical purposes, we'll examine the advanced numbers on NBA Stats since the All-Star break because the Pels will be facing reportedly this nuclear hot Spurs squad for the first time.
|OFF Rtg||DEF Rtg||NET Rtg||eFG%||OPP eFG%||REB%|
The Pelicans have been better at home for nearly the last two months than the hottest team has been on the road pretty much across the board. Score one for home court advantage!
3) New Orleans has been a very inconsistent team all season. They didn't string together more than 2 wins in a row until late January. The Pels lost to some of the worst teams in the NBA including but not limited to the Knicks, 76ers and Magic.
Conversely, they've beaten all of top 10 teams in the Sagarin Rankings but one (Portland). However, where they've really shown brightest has been in the Southwest, easily the league's most arduous division. They've been especially tough at home against all their rivals. Just have a look at how well they've stacked up among the rest of the division in home matchups.
|W/L Record||OFF Rtg||DEF Rtg||NET Rtg||eFG%||OPP eFG%||REB%|
In case you're wondering how the Spurs have fared against the Southwest division on the road:
|W/L Record||OFF Rtg||DEF Rtg||NET Rtg||eFG%||OPP eFG%||REB%|
The bottom line is that the Pelicans have not had any problems with their rivals collectively at home. (The opposite is true with the Spurs on the road.) That's saying a lot when figuring the 2014-15 Southwest will probably go down as the toughest division since expansion back in 2004-5 (when divisions went from 4 to 6). Score another one for home court advantage!!
Don't need special, just good enough
Many fans and experts are of mind that it's going to take something really special to knock off the San Antonio Spurs in the Pelicans final regular season game.
Anthony Davis might need a 50-point, 20-rebound 5x5 for the Pelicans to beat the Spurs tomorrow night and, well... pic.twitter.com/mEVNEC4jln— Triangle Offense (@Tri_Offense) April 14, 2015
No doubt, they're an excellent team, one that has been peaking for close to the last six weeks or so. Hell, they've won 11 games in a row. However, and I hope it doesn't come off as dismissive let alone condescending, I honestly don't care. I hope that the Pelicans won't be intimidated by the Spurs recent work neither. Why? Because I don't subscribe to the theory of momentum.
In Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the authors analyzed years of data and concluded it's a fallacy.
We found no evidence that teams that are on winning streaks of two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, or even ten games have any better chance of winning the next game.
Is there a chance the Spurs come out on fire? That a combination of their players get in a zone? Sure, but that's the threat of playing any good team. The chances of excellence exist, but it's no where near a given.
That said, the biggest hurdle the New Orleans Pelicans will have to overcome Wednesday night will be their own demons. They'll need to circumvent all the butterflies and other types of anxiety as quickly as possible. They need to understand and realize that they have just as much if not a greater chance (thanks stats!) of walking away with the victory.