MINNEAPOLIS — The Pelicans aren’t in the playoffs yet, but it will feel that way Wednesday night when they host San Antonio in the regular-season finale.
By virtue of a 100-88 victory Monday at Minnesota, New Orleans ensured it still controls its own destiny in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But Oklahoma City’s Monday victory over Portland, aided by the NBA overturning a technical foul against star guard Russell Westbrook and allowing him to play, guaranteed the battle will go down to the last game. Both teams have identical 44-37 records, but the Pelicans hold the tiebreaker advantage.
A New Orleans home victory over San Antonio or a Thunder loss at Minnesota on Wednesday would give the Pelicans a postseason berth, the first for the franchise since 2011. But if the Pelicans lose and the Thunder wins, New Orleans will be left out.
“We put ourselves in a great position,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “We get a chance to go home and play one game to go to the playoffs.”
The Spurs will be playing for a division title as well, giving the game a playoff-like atmosphere. Pelicans star center Anthony Davis implored the crowd to react accordingly, saying the team “feeds off” the fans. Williams said his team, after scrambling to get back in the playoff race, will be ready.
“We’ve been in so many emotional games this year. I don’t think our guys will be fazed in a negative way,” he said. “I think they’ll have some nerves, but I told them they have to embrace it. This is part of going to the next step as a team and as an individual.”
The Pelicans would be wise to take care of their own business and not count on the Timberwolves to deliver a win over the Thunder, as they witnessed Monday why Minnesota (16-65) owns the NBA’s worst record.
The Pelicans were far from their sharpest early, yielding a poster-worthy dunk to Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins over Omer Asik in the first quarter while leading just 22-20 at the end of one.
They found themselves in a 26-26 tie early it the second quarter, but Williams and Davis credited defense with helping New Orleans take over against a Minnesota team that has been decimated by injuries and had just eight healthy players available.
New Orleans closed out the rest of the quarter on a 24-9 run to lead 50-35 at the break and was never seriously threatened after that. Wiggins and fellow high-flying rookie Zach LaVine combined for 39 points in the game but made just 13 of 40 shots from the field.
Davis finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks and five assists; while Tyreke Evans had an efficient night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. Eric Gordon also finished with 22 points and made 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
Afterward, the Pelicans quickly turned their attention to Wednesday.
Guard Jrue Holiday, who returned last week after being sidelined 41 games with a stress reaction in his right leg, did not play Monday in order to “be smart with his leg and make sure he’s ready for next game,” Williams said.
Forward Quincy Pondexter (25 career playoff games) and guard Norris Cole (60 career playoff games, including two championships with the Heat) both said they would lean on their experience to help the team mentally prepare for the Spurs.
“We have a chance to do something this group hasn’t done before,” Pondexter said. “They just need to embrace the moment and have fun with it.”
Said Cole: “I’m just looking forward to the energy and the opportunity we have.”