In theory, the New Orleans Pelicans have the inside track on the final Western Conference playoff spot because they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Oklahoma City.
Win Wednesday night at home and they’re in.
The problem is that season finale is against the San Antonio Spurs, the hottest team in basketball, while the Thunder are getting the coldest.
Making matters potentially worse for the Pelicans (44-37) is the fact that the Spurs (55-26) are also still playing for plenty.
After a 100-88 win in Minnesota on Monday, New Orleans’ playoff scenario is cut and dry. It needs a win or a Thunder loss to earn a first-round date with Golden State.
"We thought we’d be in the playoffs. We had injuries and close games, but we wouldn’t want it no other way," said Anthony Davis, who had 24 points and 11 rebounds to send the Timberwolves into their finale against the Thunder with an 11th straight loss. "We’ve fought through adversity since I’ve been here. It’s just another test for us, and I think we’ll be able to handle it."
San Antonio also controls its own fate and will win the Southwest Division and earn the No. 2 seed with a victory. With a loss, the Spurs can finish as far down as sixth – excluding fourth because Portland has claimed that spot with the Northwest title – while opening the division up to Houston.
The Spurs, who have won a season-best 11 straight, are tied with Houston but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Memphis is a game back but cannot win the division because the three-way tiebreaker of winning percentage among those three teams is out of reach. But with a San Antonio loss and Memphis win, the Grizzlies hold the two-team tiebreaker of division winning percentage, so in the case of Houston winning and taking the division, the Spurs would finish behind both, resulting in the No. 6 seed.
The Spurs likely haven’t thought that far into it because it hasn’t much mattered who they’ve played for about six weeks now. Dating to Feb. 27, they’re an NBA-best 21-3 and 14-1 against the West. That loss came against No. 7 seed Dallas, which split with San Antonio this season, so the No. 2 seed might not make anything substantially easier.
The goal, rather, is to carry play that’s resulted in a league-best scoring average (109.7) and field-goal percentage (49.5) from the last 24 games into the postseason as they have in the past.
"It’s usually around the rodeo trip in February where we really kind of turn that corner, but it didn’t work out that way this time and it took a little longer," said Tim Duncan, who is averaging 25.5 points and 10.0 rebounds in two games after Sunday’s 107-91 home win over Phoenix. "But I think we finally are at a place where we’re starting to feel that confidence build and we got some legs."
The stretch doesn’t include a game against New Orleans, which has taken two of three in the season series behind 23.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game from Davis. Duncan has averaged 15.7 points and 10.3 boards.
None of those games came with the Spurs fully healthy and they were all played during the 2014 portion of the schedule, but New Orleans coach Monty Williams sees it as a chance to enter the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11 on exactly the right kind of high note.
"We get to play the champs on our home floor," Williams said. "Our crowd should be crazy and our guys should have a good time with it."
The Pelicans have won seven of 10 and are in position to win five straight at home for the first time in more than four years, though they’ve traded wins and losses for the last six. Oklahoma City let them back in the race by dropping seven of 10.
The win over Minnesota came with Jrue Holiday sitting out the second game of a back-to-back set. The guard missed 41 games with a leg injury before returning for the previous two and is expected to play.