New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams often speaks with San Antonio Spurs counterpart Gregg Popovich, a mentor.
But this time was a little different, Williams said, since their teams will meet Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center with so much on the line.
“We’re both happy for each other, either way,” Williams said. “Once the ball goes up, you’re competing; it’s a different deal. … We were both kind of laughing at how this game came about.”
For the Pelicans (44-37), a victory is needed to assure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2011 and a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
New Orleans is tied with Oklahoma City (44-37) for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot; the Pelicans will make the playoffs with a victory or if Oklahoma City loses Wednesday at last-place Minnesota. The Pelicans hold the tiebreaker over the Thunder because they won three of four games in the season series, but a Pelicans loss and a Thunder win would send Oklahoma City to the postseason instead.
For the Spurs (55-26), the defending NBA champions, a victory would give them the West’s No. 2 seed, meaning only Golden State would have home-court advantage against San Antonio in a Western Conference playoff series.
The Pelicans are 2-1 against the Spurs this season; New Orleans won the first two games, the first time in franchise history that it won consecutive games against San Antonio.
But the teams haven’t played since the host Spurs won 95-93 in overtime on New Year’s Eve, and a lot has happened since then. Immediately after that game, Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned from a hamstring injury, and small forward Kawhi Leonard, whom Williams said may be the Spurs’ best player, came back from a bruised right hand.
Since that game, the Spurs are 35-12. They are on an 11-game winning streak and have won 14 of their past 15 games and 21 of their past 24.
“They’ve had so much continuity,” Williams said. “They’ve been in every situation. So that’s a lot to overcome. That’s what we have to do.”
The Pelicans were 16-16 after that Dec. 31 loss. It came 22 days after forward Dante Cunningham was signed and 11 days before swingman Quincy Pondexter was obtained in a trade. Since then, New Orleans has added backup point guards Norris Cole and Toney Douglas, and point guard Jrue Holiday and forward Ryan Anderson have missed lengthy times with injuries and returned.
“Both teams are different,” Williams said.
Williams said he likes the edge that the Pelicans now play with and that the bench is more complete, enabling him to better match other coaches’ moves.
His team has been in a lot of situations, too, especially recently. The Pelicans have come back from being three games out of a playoff spot and in 10th place, appearing to have only a slim chance to make the playoffs.
Williams said his Pelicans are ready for this moment.
“We’ve been in this race for a month and a half,” he said. “We’ve dealt with more emotions and big games, big losses, big wins. They know they’re going to go out and execute. It’s going to be a cool time. It may be the first time we’re embarking on this, but these guys have been through a lot. They know how to handle this.”
The Spurs’ talent, experience and time together let them adjust to opponents’ strategies more quickly than other teams can. But in the previous meetings this season, it appeared the Spurs had a difficult time adjusting to the Pelicans’ energy and intensity. And this Pelicans team is even more intense with the new additions.
That energy and intensity will on display in front of a raucous crowd Wednesday night.
“The players were all talking about it,” Williams said. “It’s what you dream about as a young player, to be in a game like this. From where our program has come from, it’s an awesome opportunity. Our fans get a chance to be a part of it, and we get a chance to do it on our home floor.”
Holiday expected to play
Williams said point guard Jrue Holiday will be ready to play “unless something happens between (Tuesday and Wednesday).” Holiday sat out Monday’s 100-88 win at Minnesota with the right lower-leg stress reaction that kept him out of 41 games this season.
PELICANS VS. SPURS THIS SEASON
New Orleans leads series 2-1
Nov. 8: Pelicans 100, Spurs 99
Anthony Davis drove for a layup with 6.6 seconds left, and the Pelicans held on to win in San Antonio. Davis had 27 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks and four steals. The Spurs had gone on a 15-4 run with starters Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on the bench to take a 99-98 lead with 12 seconds left. New Orleans was outrebounded 49-30. But the Pelicans forced 19 turnovers, had just 11 themselves, and outscored San Antonio 42-38 in the paint.
Dec. 26: Pelicans 97, Spurs 90
The win at the Smoothie King Center marked the first time in franchise history New Orleans won consecutive games against San Antonio, which lost for the sixth time in seven NBA games. Davis had 22 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. In the third quarter, he had 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks as New Orleans expanded on a 48-44 halftime lead. Ryan Anderson’s jumper gave the Pelicans an 81-72 lead with 7:50 left, and a 3-pointer by John Salmons at 5:26 pushed the margin to 12. “He’s an MVP candidate. He has blossomed,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Dec. 31: Spurs 95, Pelicans 93 (OT)
Center Omer Asik tipped a lob for Duncan into the Spurs’ goal as time expired in regulation, and the Spurs went on to win in overtime in San Antonio. “It had never happened before,” Asik said. Davis’ rebound dunk with 0.7 seconds left in regulation had given the Pelicans an 84-82 lead. Jrue Holiday scored the first five points in overtime, but he fouled out with 1:21 left. Davis had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Anderson had 18 points and 11 rebounds. Parker sat out the game with a hamstring injury, and Kawhi Leonard missed his 11th consecutive game with a bruised right hand. He returned in the next game, though. The Spurs (55-26) were 20-14 then. The Pelicans were 16-16.