Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Pelicans Fly Into OKC to Face Top-Seeded Thunder in Playoff Opener

OKLAHOMA CITY – The New Orleans Pelicans narrowly avoided tying the NBA record for most wins in a season by a team that missed the playoffs by gutting out their Play-in tournament victory over the Sacramento Kings.

Now, after advancing to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons under Willie Green, the Pelicans are rewarded with a matchup against the number one seed in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The connection between the Thunder and Pelicans runs deep. Before the Thunder existed, they hosted the then-New Orleans Hornets for nearly two seasons following Hurricane Katrina. In 2015, New Orleans edged out OKC for the West’s final playoff spot.

And, of course last season, the Thunder eliminated the Pelicans from the postseason with a win on the Pels’ home court in the play-in tournament.

Tonight they meet for the first time in the playoffs, with both teams having plenty to prove. The Thunder are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and they’ve gone from 22 to 57 wins in just three year’s time, jumping ahead of the usual curve for improvement. They were supposed to be good, but no one had them securing the top seed in the conference. Are the Thunder as good as advertised, or was the regular season an anomaly?

Meanwhile, the Pelicans have an entirely different set of challenges. Though their record has improved in each season with Green as head coach, the Pelicans are in some ways in the exact same place as they were when he arrived. After his first season, New Orleans made it through the play-in before putting up a valiant but ultimately losing effort against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.

Last season, they were one of the early surprises, but faded around the All-Star break before putting it together down the stretch to make it back into the play-in.

This season opened with plenty of optimism and expectations, and the Pelicans responded by tying the second-best record in franchise history and setting a franchise-best with a NBA-leading 28 road wins. Zion Williamson looked like the player the Pelicans envisioned when he was taken number one overall. CJ McCollum changed his shooting profile to become one of the best volume 3-point scorers in the league. Brandon Ingram provided a steady mix of scoring and passing, while Herb Jones continued to terrorize opposing scorers.

Injuries to Ingram and now Williamson, slowed the momentum of what seemed to be a guaranteed 50-win season and possibly home court advantage in the first round, and the Pelicans found themselves clawing their way into the playoffs.

Can they win without Williamson? After going 22-20 (including the Play-in) in the Smoothie King Center, can they win at home when it counts? Can they win in the clutch, wherever the game is played?

The quest for answers begins in earnest tonight.

Keys to Victory

Controlling the Tempo. The Pelicans are at their best in transition, but New Orleans has played at one of the slower paces in the NBA all season long. Meanwhile, the Thunder want to run constantly. While the Thunder will work to force the Pelicans into speeding up their offensive sets, New Orleans will have to focus on efficiency on that end of the floor. Defensively, it will be on the Pels to control the paint and the glass. OKC doesn’t shoot particularly well from beyond the arc, but if they can get second chance opportunities on the offensive end, they do have shooters capable of getting hot.

vs Thunder1-2101.7101.0109.6-8.641.

Stop the “Other Guys.” The Pelicans have done a solid job in containing the likely MVP, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this season. Against New Orleans, SGA has been below his season averages in just about every offensive category. In their losses to the Thunder, it’s been the supporting cast which has done the most damage. Josh Giddey had 25 in a win over the Pels on Mar. 26; the Thunder are 9-1 when he scores 20 or more this season. Chet Holmgren posted 20 points, 13 boards, and two blocks in a 24-point win over New Orleans in January. OKC is 18-5 when Holmgren scores at least 20 points.

All Hands on Deck. While most teams shorten their benches in the postseason, the New Orleans Pelicans don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, outside of Zion, everyone is available to play tonight. Willie Green will have to be at his best in choosing the right lineups in the right situations. Losing game one isn’t an option for the Pels, considering they’ve never won a playoff series after dropping the opener (0-6 all-time, 0-5 in the first round). With Ingram still rounding into form and CJ McCollum struggling with his shot multiple players will have to contribute, whether they’re on the floor for 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

Most Recent Starting Lineups

New Orleans PelicansOklahoma City Thunder
G – CJ McCollumG – Josh Giddey
G – Herb JonesG – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
F – Brandon IngramG – Lu Dort
F – Trey MurphyF – Jalen Williams
C – Jonas ValanciunasC – Chet Holmgren


New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson (left hamstring strain) is OUT. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: None reported

Who: (8) New Orleans Pelicans at (1) Oklahoma City Thunder

Thunder won season series, 2-1

Series Schedule:

  • Game 1: Sunday, April 21
  • Game 2: Wednesday, April 24
  • Game 3: Saturday, April 27
  • Game 4: Monday, April 29
  • Game 5: Wednesday, May 1 (if necessary)
  • Game 6: Friday, May 3 (if necessary)
  • Game 7: Sunday, May 5 (if necessary)

Where: Paycom Center

When: Apr. 21, 8:30 PM CDT

Where to watch: TNT/truTV/Bally Sports New Orleans

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Pelicans Fly Into OKC to Face Top-Seeded Thunder in Playoff Opener

    1. They have players that can shoot, but they’re middle of the road in attempts. I should have said that they arent a good volume shooting team and they’ve not shot it well against the Pelicans this season (31.7%)

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