Brandon Ingram takes a layup over Keldon Johnson

Pelicans prepare to host Spurs, recognizing significance of every game in play-in pursuit

by Jim Eichenhofer

Following their most one-sided victory of the 2020-21 season Thursday, the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t seem eager to describe Saturday’s home matchup vs. ninth-place San Antonio as a “must win.” Not because the Southwest Division meeting with the Spurs isn’t important, but because every game over the next three-plus weeks could be critical.

“The reality of the situation is they're all big games now,” first-year head coach Stan Van Gundy said, after a 135-100 win at Orlando. “We’re going to have to win a very high percentage of these last 14 games to have a chance to get in the play-in (tournament). You’re not getting in going 7-7 or probably even 8-6. You’re going to really have to win some games. So yes, San Antonio is (a) team ahead of you. It’s a big game. But the bottom line is all 14 are big games.”

New Orleans opened that 14-game span 1-0 by thumping the shorthanded Magic, whose lengthy injury list meant giving significant minutes Thursday to 10-day contract signees and other unproven youngsters. Saturday’s opponent, San Antonio, is much closer to the other side of the roster spectrum, featuring accomplished veterans DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay.

Although the 11th-place Pelicans understandably may be downplaying the magnitude of Saturday’s season-series finale, the math makes it impossible to ignore how significant the outcome could be in the Western Conference top-10 race. Since the Pelicans and Spurs split two previous head-to-head meetings, Saturday will determine the tiebreaker. San Antonio (29-29) is 3.5 games in front of New Orleans (26-33) entering the weekend, so a Spurs win would increase that margin to 4.5, lock up the tiebreaking edge and put the Spurs five ahead in the loss column (essentially six when factoring in the tiebreaker, with only 12 NOLA games remaining). On the other hand, a Pelicans win would pull them to within 2.5 games of the Spurs, who have one of the NBA’s most difficult schedules. Of San Antonio’s subsequent 13 games, more than half are against elite competition (vs. Philadelphia, vs. Milwaukee, at Brooklyn, at Utah twice, vs. Phoenix twice).

Meanwhile, 10th-place Golden State (29-30) sits three games in front of New Orleans. The Warriors, who host Denver and Sacramento this weekend, visit the Crescent City for a May 3-4 miniseries and will face the Pelicans in San Francisco on May 14. That’s the penultimate game of 2020-21 for both teams.

For New Orleans to even make it to May as a team still mentioned in the play-in conversation, though, it will need to pick up multiple wins over a five-game stretch (Spurs, Clippers, at Denver, at Thunder, at Timberwolves) that precedes the home back-to-back vs. Golden State.

Asked how much the Pelicans are keeping an eye on the standings right now, forward Zion Williamson said, “We’re professionals, so we need to know that kind of stuff, especially where we stand. Find whatever motivation each individual player needs whenever he’s out there, to try to get the win.

“The reality of the situation is we need every win. So we’re going to go into each game and do whatever we can to get the win. It’s just the reality of the situation.”

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