When the regular season ends Wednesday, the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder likely will look at their next two games as the ones that decided which team earned the Western Conference’s final playoff berth.
With three games remaining for both teams, each plays a back-to-back set Sunday and Monday. The Pelicans (43-36) can go a long way toward clinching the berth by winning at Houston (53-26), then at Minnesota (16-63 entering Saturday night). The Pelicans have the tiebreaker over the Thunder — who visit Indiana on Sunday before hosting Portland on Monday — because they won the season series 3-1.
But one thing this playoff race has taught them, Pelicans players said, is to focus on the game at hand.
Apparently, though, that’s easier said than done.
“They had been hearing it all season,” coach Monty Williams said. “I think they understand now that, if you take care of what’s in front of you and not worry about what’s on the horizon, everything will take care of itself. But for a lot of players in this group, this is the first time they’re going through this. For players who usually don’t go to the postseason, your body starts getting ready for what you do when the season ends.”
Beating the Rockets on Sunday would be a giant step toward reaching the postseason. After that, the Pelicans play perhaps the best team to face in a road back-to-back: the last-place Timberwolves. New Orleans is 9-10 in the second game of back-to-backs this year.
The Pelicans end their season at home against the San Antonio Spurs (54-26) on Wednesday.
The Rockets likely will be an angry bunch. They are coming off Friday night’s 104-103 home loss to San Antonio in which the Spurs’ Tim Duncan blocked the shot of Houston guard James Harden in the final seconds. It appeared Harden was fouled.
That one loss dropped the Rockets from the West’s No. 3 playoff spot all the way to sixth — and catapulted the Spurs from sixth to third.
The Pelicans won their first two games against the Rockets before losing 95-93 on March 25 at the Smoothie King Center. Harden led the way with his drives to the basket, getting 25 points and 10 assists. Houston scored 62 points in the lane.
There’s no doubt what the Pelicans’ emphasis will be in this game.
“We have to stop the ball better, whether it’s in transition or pick-and-roll,” Williams said. “They got everything (in the previous meeting). They got points in the paint, and they got their shots outside. We have to do a better job of guarding the ball and keeping them out of our paint.”
A lot of that was fueled by the Pelicans’ missed shots. Houston sliced a 17-point second-quarter deficit to three by halftime, then was in control until a late New Orleans run.
But the Pelicans have won six of their past eight games and are 16-10 since the All-Star break. Of late, they went 2-1 on a Western Conference road trip, won a big home game against league-leading Golden State on Tuesday and, after being routed at Memphis the next night, bounced back Friday against Phoenix.
The past month and a half, with a big assist from newcomers Norris Cole and Toney Douglas, seems to have steeled the Pelicans, making them a more surly bunch — consistent with playoff-caliber teams.
“It made us grow up,” forward Anthony Davis said before Friday’s win. “We’ve matured a lot. We became a lot closer, and we know how (other teams) play, and knowing how to play with each other, that’s huge for us.”
While the Thunder is struggling after the loss of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, the returns of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday have given the Pelicans the look of a complete team. New Orleans now looks more able to face the elite.
“I think we have a good balance, especially from the first team to the second team,” said Holiday, who returned Friday after missing 41 games with a leg injury. “Coming off the bench now, I do feel like we have a solid 10 guys that make the bench deeper.
“I do think that we challenge teams more now from the perspective that, when that second group comes in, when another rotation comes in, it’s going to be pretty tough.”