2024 Playoffs: West First Round | Thunder (1) vs. Pelicans (8)

NBA Playoffs: What to expect in Thunder-Pelicans series

If any team can at least make the Thunder work hard for their buckets, it’s the pesky Pelicans.

Led by All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder return to playoffs for the 1st time since 2020.

Aside from the obvious disparity in the seeding, Oklahoma City has the delicious advantage of being fully healthy for this series, unlike the Pelicans, who will trudge forward with a major question mark.

Zion Williamson needs two more weeks before being re-evaluated for his hamstring injury. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a typical 1 vs. 8 and plenty of drama would be invited to the party. That’s how much the Pelicans will miss Williamson, a necessary force that can’t be replaced.

Instead, at least going in, this series will carry a whiff of what-if, and could leave us all feeling a bit deprived. This doesn’t mean Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy can’t or won’t deliver and put OKC in a pinch. It’s the playoffs — anything’s possible.

But it’s just not likely the short-handed Pelicans, who won just one of the three meetings this season, will cause panic in OKC unless something very freaky happens.

Series schedule

Here’s how to watch the Pelicans vs. Thunder series:

All times Eastern Standard Time

  • Game 1: Pelicans vs. Thunder; Sunday, April 21 (9:30 p.m, TNT)
  • Game 2: Pelicans vs. Thunder; Wednesday, April 24 (9:30 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 3: Thunder vs. Pelicans; Saturday, April 27 (3:30 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 4: Thunder vs. Pelicans; Monday, April 29 (TBD, TBD)
  • Game 5: Pelicans vs. Thunder; Wednesday, May 1 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 6: Thunder vs. Pelicans; Friday, May 3 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 7: Pelicans vs. Thunder; Sunday, May 5 (TBD, TBD)*

* = If necessary

Top storyline

Top seed starts at playoff square one: It’s rare when a No. 1 seed has a roster bringing almost no proof of previous playoff success or failure, so be understanding with the 2023-24 Thunder. This is new to them.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are the only significant rotational pieces with playoff experience — three rounds total. Their joint appearance in the 2020 bubble was a bit different, shall we say.

First: Chris Paul was the leader of OKC, not Shai, who was still an MVP talent on training wheels.

Second: In Game 7, Dort had his series-winning shot attempt swatted by James Harden, who saved face for Houston.

So we really get a first chance to see how this young group holds up under the bright lights, especially in the final minute of a tight game. Assuming the Thunder actually find themselves in such a situation.

Keep your eyes on

If the Pelicans can slow the O in OKC: You can make the case for Oklahoma City being the most dangerous offensive team in the postseason. Shai can average 30 points and Chet Holmgen and Jalen Williams can each average 20 in this series and any other that OKC might play.

That’s a lot of bucket producers. But if any team can at least make the Thunder work hard for hoops, it’s the Pelicans. Being without Zion will not hurt their defense, which finished top 10 this season and features a few pesty stoppers.

So expect energy from Herb Jones (on Williams) and Jose Alvarado (on Shai). Again, it’s a tall order. OKC can score a variety of ways, and the Pelicans will have to hide McCollum while keeping Shai from beating a steady path to the free throw line.

Still, if this series will have any juice, it’ll start with New Orleans’ defense.

1 more thing to watch for each team

For the Thunder — No rebounds, no ring? That was a warning issued to the Lakers decades ago by Pat Riley during the Showtime era, and it might serve the Thunder well right now. They were the fourth-worst rebounding team in the league, and the only playoff team lower was Indiana.

It was somewhat surprising the Thunder didn’t address this at the trade deadline. Given their collection of future draft picks, they could’ve put together a package to use in a trade without tapping into their rotation.

Anyway: This series presents a chance for OKC to show some much-needed muscle, and it’ll be up to Holmgren to lead the way.

For the Pelicans — No road worriers: Guess who finished with the best road record in the NBA? Yes, strange but true, the Play-In Tournament Pelicans did better than all the heavyweights this season.

They won in Minnesota, Golden State, Philly, Phoenix and yes, Oklahoma City while going 28-14. That speaks to this team’s inability to fluster easily while in hostile conditions, as well as their mental toughness.

It will serve the Pelicans well in this series because with Zion out, they’ll need every edge and asset they can muster.

1 key number to know

41% — The Thunder got 41% of their regular-season minutes, the league’s fourth highest rate from rookies (23%, third highest) or second-year players (18%, eighth highest). None of the other seven teams that got at least 25% of their minutes from rookies or second-year players reached the playoffs.

The Thunder, of course, are the No. 1 seed in the tougher of the two conferences. They ranked in the top five on both ends of the floor and their 57-25 record is the best mark among 109 teams that have gotten at least 1/3 of their minutes from rookies or second-year players over the last 20 seasons. Their level of regular-season success, given how much they’ve relied on young and inexperienced players, is nothing like anything we’ve ever seen.

The playoffs are different, of course. Only four of those other 106 teams with a rookie-or-second-year rate of 33.3% or higher won a playoff series, and only two reached the conference finals. While the Thunder have the resume of a contender, they don’t have the experience, and time will tell if that matters.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Thunder in five. OKC was a top-five team offensively and defensively, showing the balance that produced a top seed. There really isn’t an exploitable area on this team — at least in this round — other than physical toughness in the paint. That, and with Shai being the biggest talent on the floor, it all screams a short stay for New Orleans.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.