By Avi Tyagi
New Orleans Pelicans:
9th in West
My 2022-23 All Star: Zion Williamson
Play-In Depth Chart:
|CJ McCollum||Trey Murphy III||Herb Jones||Brandon Ingram||Jonas Valančiūnas|
|Josh Richardson||Naji Marshall||Larry Nance Jr.|
Oklahoma City Thunder:
10th in West
My 2022-23 All Star: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Play-In Depth Chart:
|Shai Gilgeous-Alexander||Luguentz Dort||Jalen Williams||Josh Giddey||Jaylin Williams|
|Isaiah Joe||Aaron Wiggins||Dario Šarić|
It might feel reductive to brand this matchup “Size vs Drives”, but it does fit. Six of the eight Pelicans’ projected rotation members are 6-foot-7 or taller, creating the foundation for the 6th ranked Pels’ defense (per Cleaning the Glass) to crowd the paint. Meanwhile, although Jaylin Williams and Dario Šarić might soak up around 35 minutes, there will be extended stretches where the Thunder play neither and delve into smaller lineups predicated on perimeter sturdiness, defensive flexibility, quick rotations, offensive pace, and a voracious appetite for driving to the cup. OKC’s young, frenetic squad was visibly tiring during the stretch run of the season. Having to play almost perfect defense to compensate for the lack of a true center is difficult work, but they were able to do just enough to get to the 40-win threshold. Post-All-Star break, with Šarić in the fold and an extended injury absence for Jose Alvarado, the Thunder have attempted 6 more 3-pointers per game than the New Orleans Pelicans. 3-point variance could increase the ceiling for an OKC performance on the road, but there’s enough volatility that a dependence on it as a sole advantage could also decrease its floor. Without Zion however, the Thunder have attempted 5.2 additional rim attempts per game in comparison to NOLa. In theory, OKC is likely to have a more stable floor and higher ceiling, if they will be allowed to play their style.
The Pelicans, owners of the 1-seed as late as Friday, December 30th of this season, lost Zion Williamson to injury on the first game of January and plummeted down the standings. After a demoralizing loss to Houston that completed the drop from 23-12 to 33-37, the Pelicans performed aptly against an easier crunch time schedule to finish 42-40 on the season. While this offense has been held together by gum and toothpicks over the finishing stretch of the season, OKC presents the best theoretical matchup for the Pels. If JV can’t mash opponents in the post and force the Thunder to try bigger lineups, this Pelicans’ offense may just stall out, even at home. If JV does quickly force OKC to scrap the Double-J-Will lineups, Dario Šarić will hold the key to the contest. He must hold up against Jonas in the post while also simultaneously hold his ground on occasional switches against CJ or BI. If the power-forward-turned-center can accomplish those tasks, his ability to space the floor allows OKC to maintain their quicker 5-out lineups and to preserve the open driving lanes for ball handlers and cutters. In the most recent encounter between these teams and the only occasion where Super Dario suited up for the Thunder (a 14-point road win in New Orleans), Šarić was able to do exactly that. JV was relegated to 16 minutes, as the Pelicans offense sputtered to 96 points. I’d thus tentatively pick OKC in this match, but it’s always difficult to call a one-game series. BI has been averaging 27 points and 7 assists on 59% true shooting post-ASG with Trey averaging 18 per contest over the same timespan with a sublime TS of 67%. If those two can raise the offensive ceiling with enough support from JV and an injured CJ, the Birds could easily win at home. In favoring OKC however, I view Shai and company more likely to scramble well enough on defense off of 6 days’ rest to put together one of their better performances of the season in a primetime, national TV showcase.