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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans face must-win matchup against atypical small-ball San Antonio Spurs

Pels must beat their nemesis and hope for help elsewhere

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San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

We’re down to three regular season bubble games left on the NBA restart schedule.

With four teams currently ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans in the Western Conference standings, the chances of advancing to a play-in tournament are faint, but they still exist.

According to the NBA Standings at 538, the Pelicans have 11% odds of getting into the playoffs, with the Portland Trail Blazers (49%) and Memphis Grizzlies (27%) sporting far stronger probabilities. The Phoenix Suns sit next at 10%, and somewhat surprisingly, the San Antonio Spurs are at a paltry 2%.

In essence, the Pelicans have to win today and pray for plenty of help elsewhere. If the Grizzlies win just one more game over their final three, they’ll finish ahead of New Orleans in the standings — even if the Pels win out. The Trail Blazers need to win two and the Suns all three in this same scenario to close ahead of New Orleans.

Yeah, gulp.

The Spurs have made for an interesting story in Orlando, but they’re flying well under the radar. Damian Lillard’s exploits on the court and feud with Paul George off of it, the Suns winning streak and the Grizzlies limp to the finish have taken center stage, but there’s something fun brewing in San Antonio: Gregg Popovich, one of the biggest critics of the three-point shot, has adopted the small-ball philosophy, albeit in a much more disciplined way.

With LaMarcus Aldridge undergoing shoulder surgery in early June, many considered the Spurs an afterthought in the Orlando restart. Trey Lyles (appendectomy), who started 53 games, is also unavailable. However, that hasn’t stopped Coach Pop, who has also been without Bryn Forbes (quad) in the bubble thus far, as he’s moved DeMar DeRozan to the power forward slot and inserted Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl into the starting lineup alongside Dejounte Murray.

Defensively, this starting lineup has been a mess, posting an unsightly 120.2 defensive rating, but they’ve been fantastic on offense (121.3 offensive rating, 50.5 FG% and 42.9 3PT%).

Don’t mistaken the Spurs for a run-and-gun team though, as their small-ball tendencies have been more unusually reserved. They have not placed a premium on the transition game (ranking 18th among the 22 Orlando teams in fastbreak points) or on the three-point shot (ranking 21st), but they have dramatically quickened their tempo of play from pre-covid (104.3 Pace (4th)), looking to pick defenses apart quickly for a good shot.

Another fascinating development in Orlando is that the Spurs, who have not missed the postseason in 22 straight years, have not placed the highest priority on victories.

“This is all about development, I’ve said that from the beginning,” Popovich said. “The young guys, they get evaluated, we see them playing together and we get to determine how valuable they are in terms of the guys we want to move forward with.”

Case in point, Patty Mills was purposefully made inactive for the Spurs first bubble game and has missed two contests in total. Marco Belinelli is coming off a foot injury, but he took a DNP in the Spurs last game after being cleared for action.

Despite their agenda, San Antonio could be a perfect 5-0 in Orlando, having lost by two points in a matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers and by six points to the Denver Nuggets.

Moral of the story: Never take a Coach Pop-led team lightly. New Orleans is going to have to play their best — a level that the Pelicans have rarely hit in the restart — to beat the Spurs this afternoon.

Who: San Antonio Spurs vs New Orleans Pelicans

When: August 9, 2:00 PM Central

Where to watch: FSNO, ABC

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.