Pelicans on emotional roller coaster heading into showdown vs Spurs
It all comes down to one game Wednesday night. Everything that the young New Orleans Pelicans have worked for this season hinges on whether they can defeat the surging San Antonio Spurs inside the Smoothie King Center in a do-or-die game.
A New Orleans win equates to a playoff birth. A loss means the Pelicans' future will be decided by the outcome of the Oklahoma City Thunder's game against the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves, who only dressed eight healthy players Monday night. One of those players, starting guard Chase Budinger, left the game early with a sprained ankle.
"I think it is an animal, but at the same time, we've been in so many emotional games this year that I don't think our guys will be faxes in a negative way," Coach Monty Williams said. "I think they'll have some nerves. I told them they've got to embrace it. This is part of going to the next step as a team and as an individual. You can't run from it. We're going to play the champs on our home floor. Our crowd should be crazy, and our guys should have a good time with it. At the same time, we know we've got to beat the champs to get there."
Scant few New Orleans players have been there or done that. Ryan Anderson has had a blush with the playoffs during his tenure with the Orlando Magic. Quincy Pondexter experienced how the Memphis Grizzlies coped with the spotlight, learning from the example of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Reserve point guard Norris Cole is the most seasoned when it comes to playoff wiles: he won two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat.
New Orleans' star player, Anthony Davis, is a neophyte at this particular situation. He can rely on his national championship experience at the University of Kentucky to some extent, but the Wildcats were the hands down favorites for most, if not all, of the season.
"We just have to think of it as playing basketball, as just another game. We can't make it too big mentally," Davis said. "Just take care of our own business. We know we've got the upper hand. We just need to go out there and have play basketball, just have fun and take it one play at a time."
If both the Pelicans and the Thunder win Wednesday, New Orleans has the upper hand because the Pels hold the tie-breaker over Oklahoma City after winning the season series 3-1.
"Embrace the moment, embrace the time," Pondexter said of his advice to his teammates. "We're still young. We're learning how to win big games. We have a chance to do something that this group hasn't done before, and that's play in the playoffs. It's AD's first time, and a couple of the other guys first time, so they just need to embrace the moment, have fun with it and hope we make it."
Davis is hoping the home crowd in the Crescent City will provide a boost.
"We are going to need them," Davis said. "It's a tough team - the defending champs. We want everybody who's part of the Pelican to be in attendance Wednesday night because we're going to need them. We feed off of them, whether we're up or down. They get loud for us, and we're going to need them versus a tough Spurs team."
San Antonio is indeed expected to be tough. The Spurs need a win Wednesday night to lock up the #2 playoff spot in the Western Conference. New Orleans won't get any help from San Antonio or Gregg Popovich's reputation for resting starters when the game doesn't matter.
The next 48 hours will be both exciting and agonizing for New Orleans' front office, coaches and players. Rest is crucial, but will they be able to sleep? For management, GM Dell Demps has long said the vision was for the team to make the playoff in Davis' third year. The moment is now at hand, with the only hurdle remaining a third victory over the defending NBA champions.
"It's fun and it's nerve wracking," Williams said. "I'm sure my wife will be getting out of my way, and my kids will be asking, 'Why is Daddy's face in that computer all night looking at film?' This is a time that we've all worked for. After stripping our program down and rebuilding it, this is a step for us. We want to embrace it and get through it. Thankfully, we get a chance to do it on our home floor."
The Spurs at Pelicans game tips off at the same time as the Thunder at Timberwolves game Wednesday night: 7 p.m. CT.