Win and you’re in.
It’s that simple. Technically.
But, this is the New Orleans Pelicans and the chaos of the Western Conference, so obviously it’s not so straightforward. Because it’s not the whole story.
Yes, the Pelicans can punch their first ticket to the NBA playoffs since 2015 by beating the Los Angeles Clippers in Monday night’s 9:30 p.m. tipoff at the Staples Center, but the stakes go beyond that individual hurdle.
A whole lot happened. Yet nothing changed.
A three-game winning streak was punctuated by Saturday’s stirring 126-120 win over the Golden State Warriors. It not only snapped a 14-game losing streak against the defending champions, but also ensured the Pelicans would remain in a seedings fight to the finish.
After 80 games, the Pelicans’ postseason fate is still entirely in question. There’s an opportunity to climb as high as No. 4 with a pair of wins, and the possibility of falling out of the playoffs entirely by dropping contests against the Clippers on Monday and San Antonio Spurs in the season finale Wednesday.
“It means a lot to get in (the playoffs), but you don’t just want to get in,” Anthony Davis said. “I’ve been in before. Nobody remembers that. Nobody cares about that.
“Our goal is to get in and make some noise. The way we’re playing I think we could do so. Guys are hungry. So when you got a team that’s hungry, it’s pretty scary.”
And every spot matters.
Avoiding the No. 7 or No. 8 seed means steering clear of the stalwart Warriors and Houston Rockets in the first round, an obvious goal. The only sure path for the Pelicans to circumnavigate them is to win each of their final two games.
“Again, it’s kind of been the same,” Jrue Holiday said. “We kind of had the same composure for a while now. Wins, losses we know that every game is very, very important. We’re going to take this next game to the Clippers and play the same way.”
New Orleans’ postseason potential was on full display in Oracle Arena, knocking out a nearly full-strength Golden State team, which unleashed three of its four All-Stars and a home crowd revved up to build momentum for the playoffs.
Yet, the Pelicans matched each difficult Kevin Durant bucket, deep Klay Thompson 3-pointer and Draymond Green shove with a push of their own. Despite giving up five inches, Holiday smothered Durant in the final minutes while Davis protected the rim and Rajon Rondo hunted for steals.
Offensively, New Orleans showed its ability to spread the floor. Rondo’s 17 assists facilitated Nikola Mirotic’s six 3-pointers, successfully providing space for Holiday and Davis’ dynamic pick-and-roll combination.
It was an illustration of precisely what makes the Pelicans dangerous, compiling a 19-13 record since losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a torn achilles.
“Yeah, AD is such a great roller in pick-and-roll and you can’t switch on him, because he can score on anybody,” Durant said. “So put that out there with shooters all around him and (Rajon) Rondo who’s a wizard with the ball, that’s what makes him dangerous. AD rolling to the rim, they can toss a lob up, they can drop it to him, he can knock down a J, that’s why they’re so dangerous.
“That pick-and-roll it makes it difficult for us to hop in and they’re swinging to shooters. They’re spreading teams out, so I can see why they’ve been playing so well and have one of the best offenses over the last month or so, because that pick-and-roll dynamic is tough to guard.”
And the Pelicans want to put it on display under the bright postseason lights.
Regardless of all the jockeying, if the Pelicans win their final two games, they’ll be no worse than the No. 5 seed, meaning potential matchups against the Portland Trail Blazers or Utah Jazz.
A single loss would not knock them out, but could drop them as far back as No. 8, especially if it succumbs to San Antonio. And a pair of defeats could leave the Pelicans at home watching the playoffs for the third straight season.
Ultimately, as attention-grabbing as New Orleans’ win at Golden State was, its meaning is still dependent on what’s left to unfold.
“It’s a big confidence booster, knowing where we are in the playoff race,” Davis said. “You got seven teams trying to fight for six spots or something like that. We’re just trying to come out here and compete. It was a big one for us. Most importantly, we haven’t won here in a while. It builds a lot of confidence for us going into the Clippers game.”