Jrue Holiday, who spent half of the season wrapped in ice, fittingly put the Pelicans’ playoff chances on ice.
The banged-up point guard swished a pair of free throws with 9.5 seconds remaining, stretching the Pelicans’ lead over the San Antonio Spurs from three to five points, effectively ending an 82-game chase toward the playoffs. New Orleans ultimately won 108-105, clinching a spot in the NBA’s postseason.
It was the final sign that Holiday made the most of receiving an extra day of rest for the recovering stress reaction in his right leg. The former starting point guard sat in the Pelicans’ 100-88 win over Minnesota on Monday, allowing him ample time to rest the injured leg and it benefitted him Wednesday as the Pelicans knocked off the Spurs to earn the highly sought-after No. 8 seed.
“You got to do what you go to do,” Holiday said. “It came down to the last game and obviously if we would have lost the game then I would have been resting for four, five or six months.
“We have a couple of days and I can rest my leg, and then we’ll do whatever.”
After he missed 40 games, starting Jan. 12, the Pelicans put Holiday on a 15-minute per game restriction that coach Monty Williams initially said would last the remainder of the regular season. In recent days he wavered on the restriction and with the playoffs on the line, he blew right past it, allowing Holiday to log 21 minutes.
“I needed him to play,” Williams said. “This could have been our last night of the season. What are we holding off for? He looked great. He will probably have some soreness tomorrow — but look, man; you do what you have to do to win games.”
The point guard came off the bench to score 11 points, pull down three rebounds and help slow down Tony Parker on the perimeter. Parker scored just seven of his 23 points in the second half.
Holiday entered earlier than usual Wednesday and became a scoring threat as the Pelicans racked up 35 first-quarter points, including a buzzer-beating, whirling-dervish jumper that sent the Smoothie King Center into hysteria.
“(The crowd) got us through the first half,” Holiday said. “Ryan (Anderson) said it. The crowd got us through the half with the energy and the screaming. It was big. Hopefully we carry that into the playoffs.”
Pelicans fans and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich shared at least one hope in common before Wednesday’s game.
They both wished the Spurs starters didn’t have to play.
Popovich admitted that he wished his veteran-laden team could have benefitted from resting on the final date of the regular season rather than suiting up for what felt like a playoff game.
“I wish they were sitting tonight, to be honest with you,” Popovich said. “I wish we didn’t need them out there for us, or for Monty. I would rather be resting guys.”
Popovich is notorious for benching his aging stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — at various points in the regular season as a testament to his belief in the power of rest, but with the Spurs facing the possibility of dropping from the No. 2 seed to No. 6 based on the outcome, the risk of rest failed to outweigh benefit of winning.
He also admitted the idea of keeping Williams, a former player, assistant and friend, out of the playoffs was also bittersweet.
“It’s ironic and strange and makes both of us feel very weird,” Popovich said before the game. “We laughed about it. That’s all you can do.”
Then, after the game, Popovich gave Williams a prolonged embrace to congratulate him and spoke to the Pelicans after the game with words of encouragement.
Just call them the streak stoppers.
The New Orleans Pelicans welcome knocked out the hottest team in the NBA for the second time this season. This was a bit different.
While halting the Hawks’ NBA-best 19-game winning streak on Feb. 2 was attention-grabbing, clinching a playoff spot against the red-hot Spurs was potentially franchise-altering.
San Antonio had won 20 of its past 24 games, including 11 in a row entering the night. During that stretch the Spurs surrendered just 90 points per game.
While Holiday’s status is a newsworthy item, reserve Norris Cole had fans worrying less about his absence during a furious second quarter flurry.
Cole carried New Orleans offensively, converting 6-of-8 attempts in the quarter, hitting four shots at the rim and a pair of floaters as the Pelicans hung with the Spurs as they unleashed a 29-point quarter at the other end.
He also swiped a steal and completed a flawless bounce pass to a streaking Quincy Pondexter, who finished with a slam.
“Norris was just great for us and we needed it,” Williams said. “Those bench guys came up really big.”
New Orleans’ 62 first-half points were the most by any Spurs opponent this season. ... Grammy winning recording artist Winn Butler of Arcade Fire took in the game from courtside, passionately rooting on the Pelicans. ... The 60 points in the paint by New Orleans were the most allowed by San Antonio all season...The Pelicans 108 points were the most allowed against the Spurs since an overtime loss to Cleveland on March 12.