Tag, OKC. You’re it.
Tuesday’s hold-your-breath 85-84 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks again pulled the Pelicans even with the Thunder (and don’t forget the all-important tie-breaker) in one of the stranger but more-intriguing playoff races you’ll see.
The teams met for the last time this season on Feb. 6 when Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer, his lone 3-pointer of the season, gave the Pelicans a 116-113 road victory. That means when the regular season ends, more than two months will have elapsed since they last saw each other, and the odds of them facing each other in the playoffs are infinitesimal.
It also means they have no control over what each other is doing, making the old sports cliché about only controlling what you can a fact in this case, unless it means sending bad vibes the other team’s way.
“Great game,” Davis said of the Thunder’s 119-115 loss at Dallas on Monday. “I’m glad OKC lost.”
They’re in essence only playing for the eighth and final berth in the Western Conference. The seventh-place Los Angeles Clippers have a five-game lead over the Pelicans and Thunder with just 15 games to go. So overtaking them or Dallas and San Antonio, the current sixth-and-seventh-place teams, is highly unlikely.
However, Phoenix is still lurking two games behind with two games left against the Pelicans, including one there Thursday plus one against the Thunder. So the Suns can’t be counted out, even though most folks are.
The Pelicans also are pretty much destined to finish last in the Southwest Division, although that’s meaningless other than showing how tough the West, and particularly this division, is.
And for that it’s worth, whoever comes out of this isn’t likely to get past Golden State in the first round. Since all playoff series went to best-of-seven in 2003, only twice has a No. 8 seed beaten a No. 1.
That’s 2-of-24, almost as bad as the 3-of-21 second quarter shooting that put the Pelicans in a dogfight Tuesday after they’d led 15-0 at the start.
They were only 4-of-20 in the fourth quarter as well, a figure that should get you beat. The Pelicans haven’t had a double-digit home victory since Jan. 26.
But so what? It’s still fun, especially for the Pelicans, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011 when the NBA was the caretaker owner, none of the current players were on the roster and the nickname was the Hornets.
It’s also given, for this season at least, the Pelicans something lack: a true rival, albeit just a virtual one the rest of the way.
Of course, there’s always San Antonio. But everybody wants to beat the New England Patriots of the NBA.
Houston and Memphis are the nearest NBA cities, but there’s not much a vibe about them either.
Atlanta? This ain’t the Falcons.
However, it’s not that folks around here really dislike Oklahoma City, even though then-owner George Shinn made goo-goo eyes at the folks over there about relocating during the Hornets’ Katrina sojourn in the Sooner State.
Actually, there’s a lot to admire about a team that has been without reigning league MVP Kevin Durant for 40 games and counting and now has lost Serge Ibaka for the rest of the regular season with a knee injury, but has kept itself in the playoff hunt after a rocky start thanks to the MVP-caliber play of Russell Westbrook, he of the almost-nightly triple double.
“Westbrook is playing out of his mind,” Davis said. “He has a great supporting cast around.
“I love watching good basketball, and they’ve got all of those guys who can play.”
Remember: Last year Oklahoma City was 59-23 in the regular season, second in the West, and took the eventual-league champion Spurs to six games in the conference final despite losing Ibaka to a leg injury.
They’re not going away.
The Thunder also has its next three games at home, starting Wednesday against Boston.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans have Phoenix on Thursday, Golden State on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday — all teams with plenty to play for.
If the Pelicans can come home still tied, or no more than a game back, it will have been a successful road trip.
At least they’re heading to Phoenix coming off a hard, albeit unstylish victory. At this stage, any loss is costly.
Losing Tuesday would have been psychologically devastating, even for a team that has repeatedly bounced back from similar situations this season,
Nobody said it was supposed to be easy.