Pelicans could be OK if they take care of their own business

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The New Orleans Pelicans mostly control their playoff fate.

That might seem hard to believe after their 0-2 beginning to the NBA restart, but it’s true.

If New Orleans wins its last five games, beginning against Sacramento on Thursday afternoon, it can finish either eighth or ninth and qualify for a play-in match-up if Portland loses one of its last five games.

That’s a tall order to be sure, but not nearly as daunting after the Pelicans’ 109-99 victory against eight-place Memphis on Monday night.

Prior to that game, guard Lonzo Ball called it “basically a must-win game for us.”

He was right and the Pelicans played like a team feeling a sense of urgency. Beating the team holding on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference was significant and the Grizzlies are struggling.

The lost to the Pelicans was Memphis’ third in as many games in the restart and they learned Tuesday that one of its best players – Jaren Jackson Jr. – will miss the rest of the season after suffering a meniscus injury against New Orleans.

So the Grizzlies’ grip on the eighth spot is more tenuous than when the restart began last week. But the Pelicans’ best hope of making the playoffs is the same as it was when they arrived in Orlando – to qualify for a play-in opportunity by finishing in ninth place and being no more than four games behind whoever finishes in eighth place.

Entering play on Wednesday New Orleans was merely 2.5 games behind Memphis, but Portland and San Antonio were sandwiched between the Pelicans and the Grizzlies, so the Pelicans’ primary targets are the Blazers and the Spurs.

The Pelicans’ path to the playoffs is not an easy one, but it is a simple one: Finish in ninth place, which will require enough wins that it’s a virtual certainty that they will achieve the four-game threshold. If that happens they would have to beat the No. 8 team two games in a row to make the playoffs. One loss would end their season.

In fact the Pelicans probably need to win their remaining five games, but the schedule isn’t all that difficult now that the Jazz and Clippers are out of the way. The game Thursday is one of two against the Kings and the others are against the Wizards, the Spurs and the Magic.

If the Pelicans do run the table that would guarantee them no worse than a 10th-place finish because they would pull away from the Kings, hold off the surging Suns and leap past the Spurs by virtue of the presumed head-to-head win.

The only help they would need would be in regard to the Blazers, who are one game ahead of the Pelicans but face a much more challenging schedule with match-ups against the Nuggets, Clippers, Sixers and Mavericks before closing with the Nets.

If New Orleans wins its remaining games and Portland loses two of its remaining games, the Pelicans would claim at least ninth place.

New Orleans has won just the first game of what might need to become a six-game winning streak, but in addition to the favorable schedule is what might have been a turning point for Zion Williamson against Memphis.

The Pelicans medical staff has coddled the rookie ever since he arrived last summer. He missed 13 days of work in Orlando when he left the bubble to tend to a family emergency.

That put him behind his teammates in the ramp-up to the return to play and he was limited to 14 minutes and didn’t see the court during crunch time against the Jazz. He didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter of the debacle against the Clippers.

But the Pelicans turned him loose, at least relatively speaking, against the Grizzlies. He played 25 minutes and for the first time in the restart returned for crunch time after going to the bench midway through the fourth quarter.

He responded with six straight Pelicans points that helped them hold off the Grizzlies and restart their playoff hopes.

“My competitive spirit was turned on,” Williamson said. “I was just happy the training staff and my team trust me to be able to close the game out.”

And coach Alvin Gentry and Williamson’s teammates were just as happy.

“Just having Zion out there at the end of the game I think is big,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “I feel like it takes a lot of pressure off people. (We have) so many threats on the floor, so many different shooters out there, so many different threats, it kind of makes it easier on us.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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