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There’s lots of reasons favoring the Pelicans over the Spurs in Wednesday’s play-in

New Orleans can take one step closer to the 2022 playoffs

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

There exists a lone objective for the New Orleans Pelicans: Sending the San Antonio Spurs home disappointed after Wednesday’s play-in matchup.

In the super short history of the play-in tournament, there’s been a total of nine games played. Eight times the higher seed advanced, including the Nets and Timberwolves last night. The lone exception was the Grizzlies who beat the Warriors to secure the eighth playoff spot last season.

Despite possessing the higher seed, being labeled a 5.5-point favorite by oddsmakers and playing within the friendly confines of the Smoothie King Center, don’t expect the task to be easy for New Orleans.

The Pelicans have a lifetime 23-57 record against the Spurs. That’s includes all regular season and playoff meetings. Their home record (17-25) is fortunately much better than their away mark (6-32) in San Antonio, but as the number of wins and losses show, it does not remotely guarantee success.

The Spurs have been responsible for a lot of Pels’ heartache over the years, with no loss stinging worse to this day than Game 7 of the 2008 Western Conference semifinals. In a series where the home team had won by a decisive margin in each of the first six games, New Orleans failed to maintain that status quo in the pivotal contest.

The then-Hornets simply couldn’t put enough points on the board. At halftime of that Game 7, they trailed 51-42. In the third quarter, they only added another 14 points to their total. The defense faced was outstanding, no doubt, but normal shots were missed by players like Peja Stojakovic and David West.

Jannero Pargo nearly lifted those Hornets to an improbable comeback, pouring in 16 of his 18 points in the final frame, but he missed a 3-pointer which would have knotted the score at 83 with 1:35 remaining. That was New Orleans’ last gasp as they ultimately fell 91-82.

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom for New Orleans in key matchups between these two franchises. The Pelicans, for instance, exorcised some demons in the last game of the 2014-15 regular season.

Needing a victory to qualify for the 2015 playoffs, the Pelicans overcame the odds to beat the Spurs inside The Blender. Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans were special in the 108-103 win and fans should forever remember the following quote from AD.

“I don’t know if people know — I dislocated my pinkie finger. And [Tyreke] told me, ‘You wanna go home or you wanna be here?’ I want to be here. And he said, ‘All right, then go tape it up and let’s play. Let’s go. We not stoppin’ at no stores. Straight gas. That’s what we do, just keep going.’”

In every matchup with the Spurs, there’s been a constant. Gregg Popovich, the all-time winningest NBA head coach, has always stood on the sidelines for San Antonio when facing New Orleans.

That’s expected to change very soon, so much so, the Pelicans could be the opponent that hands Pop the final L in his illustrious career. It’s not clear what the future holds for him, but the Pelicans beating the Spurs in perhaps the living legend’s last professional game on the sidelines is something no New Orleanian would ever forget.

So, can the Pelicans eke out a victory? Am I comfortable enough to proclaim another win is in store as I did seven years ago?? I think so!

Tale of the Tape

The Pelicans posted a 19-22 record at home and the Spurs went 18-23 on the road during the 2021-22 regular season. There’s little difference in the accompanying net ratings too.

Considering both clubs made notable moves at the trade deadline, however, it’s more pertinent to examine this data in greater depth after CJ McCollum, Larry Nance and Tony Snell arrived in New Orleans, and Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford in San Antonio.

Team Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating TS% REB% AST/TOV
Pelicans (home) 119.5 (5) 115.6 (22) +4.0 (12) 58.7% (15) 52.1% (5) 2.01 (9)
Spurs (away) 118.3 (5) 114.4 (14) +4.0 (8) 57.7% (15) 49.7% (13) 2.50 (2)

Outside of rebounding percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, these squads appear evenly matched. This could be an area of concern, as the Spurs seemed to have developed a confidence of winning on the road during this stretch (9-6).

One factor in favor of New Orleans: the play-in isn’t going to be another regular season game — Smoothie King Center is expected to be at or near capacity. This bodes well for the preferred style of play, providing additional momentum for the Pelicans to be active defensively, get out in transition and pound the glass.

Outside of the stars, Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado can summon great energy at a moment’s notice, but certain players, say Jaxson Hayes and Trey Murphy III, seem to feed off positive vibes.

Team Steals Points off Turnovers 2nd Chance Points Fastbreak Points Opponent Points Off Turnovers Opponent 2nd Chance Points Opponent Fastbreak Points
Pelicans (home) 8.6 (3) 18.8 (4) 18.4 (2) 15.4 (9) 14.6 (9) 14.4 (21) 9.7 (3)
Spurs (away) 7.9 (10) 17.3 (10) 15.3 (6) 14.9 (7) 14.7 (5) 13.3 (13) 12.5 (8)

These stats involving New Orleans at home and San Antonio on the road echo another similarly matched fight. Both teams do a good job of taking advantage of their youth, size and athleticism.

In their four regular season matchups, the team which played more to their strengths usually wound up the winner.

Matchup Points off Turnovers 2nd Chance Points Fastbreak Points Points in the Paint Opponent Points Off Turnovers Opponent 2nd Chance Points Opponent Fastbreak Points Opponent Points in the Paint
Dec. 12 NOP @ SAS (L) 14 14 16 52 18 14 16 66
Feb 12. NOP vs SAS (L) 4 9 9 42 19 9 13 50
Mar. 18 NOP @ SAS (W) 22 26 15 50 15 15 8 32
Mar. 26 NOP vs SAS (L) 7 27 11 52 13 22 2 54

It’s vital for New Orleans to win most, if not all, of these categories.

Reasons for Optimism

With so few obvious advantages in these aforementioned numbers, don’t despair. In looking elsewhere, there’s a lot of positives which point to the Pelicans upending the Spurs.

  • With Brandon Ingram confirming yesterday that he’ll play tonight, it’ll mark the first time this season the Spurs face the Pelicans’ most effective starting lineup. The McCollum-Jones-Ingram-Hayes-Valanciunas group has performed exceptionally well (+8.2 net rating), posting seven wins in 10 starts together.
  • CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas carry extensive play-in and playoff success, having won in both formats. The Spurs entire roster combined has a smaller postseason resume than New Orleans’ duo.
  • In the seven most-oft used lineups since Feb. 10, six have a positive net rating for the Pelicans. Conversely, that number is only three for the Spurs.
  • The Blender is going to be really loud.
  • Dejounte Murray has been a triple-double threat since the All-Star break (25.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists), but Herb Jones has contained him well. Murray has totaled only 12 points on 4 of 14 shooting against Jones in the four meetings. Willie Green could ask Jones to shadow Murray all over the court and have teammates provide help when necessary, similar to how the defense was erected against LeBron James in the Pelicans’ huge come-from-behind victory on March 27.
  • Since the start of February, the Pelicans’ reserve unit have been more effective than the Spurs’.
Bench Points FG% 3PT% Steals +/-
Pelicans 39.1 (10) 46.6% (11) 34.9% (14) 4.1 (2) +1.9 (6)
Spurs 37.3 (15) 44.8% (20) 31.5% (27) 2.8 (15) -0.6 (19)
  • Doug McDermott, who averaged 13.0 points on stellar shooting (62.7 TS%) against New Orleans, is out for the season due to a severe ankle sprain.
  • The Blender is going to be INSANELY loud.
  • McCollum’s level of preparation is second to none: “Nobody watches film like me. Maybe (Chris Paul). I don’t think there’s anybody else.”
  • The Pelicans’ clutch record (14-18) is superior to the Spurs’ (15-24). No team had a more ineffective offense in these key moments during the regular season.
  • Willie Green is a rookie head coach, but he has been a member of two coaching staffs that eliminated Popovich and San Antonio from the playoffs. The Warriors beat the Spurs 4-0 in the 2017 Western Conference finals, and then a year later, knocked them out 4-1 in the first round.
  • The Blender and at least half of New Orleans is going to be ROCKING.

If the Pelicans find a way to beat the Spurs, they’ll move a step closer to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, needing to only knock off the Clippers in Los Angeles on Friday.

Let’s Geaux!

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (36-46) vs San Antonio Spurs (34-48)

When: April 13, 2022, 8:30 p.m.

Where to watch: ESPN

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.