What a difference a 10-game winning streak can make. With 15 games left in the regular season, the New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in the 5th seed with an opportunity to secure home court advantage.
Jrue Holiday is on fire and giving the front office reasons for back pats and knowing nods. Anthony Davis is on pace for his first “maybe next year” MVP season. That means we finally get to do this:
Well, to clarify, we actually can talk about the playoffs, because for the first time in three years, there is postseason basketball to look forward to in New Orleans. While the Pelicans likely won’t hit 50 wins, their floor right now seems to be the 6th seed.
So for the first time in years, let’s talk about potential playoff matchups and predict our chances of success.
Right now, it seems the Pelicans’ most likely opponent in the first round will come from the group of the Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.
To compare apples-to-apples, I selected four factors: the Pelicans’ record in the regular season matchup; the team’s record against winning squads; post-All Star break record; and key injuries.
Here’s a breakdown of each matchup, as well as my prediction for each.
Pelicans record vs: 2-1
Blazers vs .500+: 18-21
Blazers post-All Star break: 9-0
Blazers key injuries: none
The Blazers look good. Like…really really good.
For the Pelicans, the biggest challenge is excellent guard play from both positions. Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum are on a nationwide tour of destruction and seem unstoppable – even the Warriors have failed twice during Portland’s current 9-game winning streak.
Portland is barreling towards their fifth consecutive postseason appearance and seem to have figured out how to beat good teams. It’s hard to imagine the Blazers playing their best basketball; holding home court advantage; leveraging playoff experience; and proceeding to lose in the first round to the Pelicans.
This is the least likely matchup, given the Blazers have only 26 losses and currently sit in 3rd. Still, Should the Pelicans drop to 6th, this won’t end well.
Prediction: Blazers, 4-2.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Pelicans record vs: 2-0
Thunder vs .500+: 20-18
Thunder post-All Star break: 8-3
Thunder key injuries: Andre Roberson, Paul George, Steven Adams
OKC is returning the reigning MVP and surrounded him with All-Star Paul George and the 20th (yes, if you can believe it) highest scorer in NBA history in Carmelo Anthony.
With Adams controlling the offensive glass, this should be a formidable team.
And yet…it feels like OKC often fails to rise to the occasion. Even their recent success after the All-Star break has come at the expense of weaker teams, their highest-quality win against the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs.
The Pelicans play at a pace that brings out the worst in the Thunder: Russell Westbrook is happy to race up and down the court, ignoring that his teammates are at their best slowing it down.
The season-ending injury to Roberson hurts their perimeter defense, and Anthony will be a disaster on defense against Nikola Mirotic.
Add to that a nagging groin injury for George and a new hip concern for Adams and this matchup looks very good for New Orleans. With Adams and George potentially banged up, the Pelicans can – and should – allow Westbrook to run amok while his teammates stand and watch the Russ Show.
Prediction: Pelicans, 4-2.
Pelicans record vs: 0-4
T’Wolves vs .500+: 24-19
T’Wolves post-All Star break: 4-4
T’Wolves key injuries: Jimmy Butler
The T’Wolves have had the Pelicans’ number all year. While the Pelicans are at their best when they put their foot on the gas pedal – and their pace has increased even more during the recent win streak – Minnesota plays like they’re stuck in the 90s.
With Jimmy Butler out, they have toyed with slowing the game down even further, posting a sub-90 pace in their win against Washington.
The problem, simply, is that this isn’t going to work in the playoffs – it’s not even working now. Minnesota is limping from the All-Star break to the playoffs and there is no guarantee Jimmy Butler will be back and healthy by the first round.
The Pelicans – despite their trouble with the T’Wolves all season – may simply catch them at the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) time. Davis has proven he has another gear, which means New Orleans can absolutely overpower this rudderless Minnesota team.
Prediction: Pelicans, 4-1.
Of course, all of this can – and probably will – change in the next few days. For now, it looks like the Pelicans have a better-than-average chance of not only getting into the playoffs, but also possibly making a run into the second round.