Thunder-Pelicans preview: How New Orleans can slow down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and OKC

The Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25) will take on the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans (49-33), who advanced through the play-in tournament, in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. The two franchises have never met in a playoff series; they did, however, square off in the 2023 play-in tournament, with Oklahoma City ending the Pelicans’ season.

If you’d forgotten about that … well, Brandon Ingram hasn’t:

How the Thunder got here

By filling the one hole in their boat, and then floating to the top of the West.

Watching last year’s Thunder make the play-in tournament, I couldn’t help but think about what was missing.

Yes, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams commanded most of my attention — focus rewarded this season as SGA ascended to the ranks of the very best players in the world while Williams mounted his own push for stardom. But whenever I saw a Thunderer drive into a congested lane, or an opponent convert over an undersized rim protector, I would wonder how OKC would look when most of the 2,500-or-so center minutes going to Jaylin Williams, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aleksej Pokuševski, Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley instead went to Chet Holmgren.

The answer, it turns out: incredible.

After sitting on ice for a year, 2022’s No. 2 pick debuted and looked not just like a veteran, but like an All-Star. Holmgren quickly proved to be the perfect missing piece on both ends: an efficient stretch-5 who could pull opposing bigs out of the paint, creating wider driving lanes for OKC’s slashers; a credible threat to put the ball on the deck and create his own shot off the dribble; and a formidable rim protector emboldening Luguentz Dort and Co. to clamp down even tighter. The result: the NBA’s No. 3 offense and No. 4 defense, and the West’s best record.

With Holmgren at center, Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Josh Giddey initiating, a creative bench boss in Coach of the Year favorite Mark Daigneault, and a variety of high-level role players, the only thing Oklahoma City’s missing now is experience. Time to start filling that hole, too.

How the Pelicans got here

By developing maybe the deepest team in the NBA and finally getting the big fella healthy … right up until he wasn’t.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about this Pelicans season? We got compelling evidence that the previously-little-seen Big Three of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum doesn’t really click; New Orleans was outscored by 25 points in 737 minutes with them on the floor, scoring and defending at bottom-10 levels.

And they were good anyway.

New Orleans sloughed off a 12-11 start marked by early-season injuries and an embarrassing blowout loss to the Lakers in the in-season tournament, bouncing back to become one of the NBA’s strongest teams. The Pelicans boasted a top-tier defense led by all-world perimeter stopper Herbert Jones (who now knocks down like 42% of his 3-pointers!), a steady stream of contributions from a second unit featuring Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr., Naji Marshall and Dyson Daniels, and strong individual production from their stars — most notably Williamson.

Zion stayed healthy enough to play 70 games for the first time in his career. He dropped weight, defended better, and looked both more explosive and more dominant as the season wore on. After a disappointing regular-season finale that saw him score just 12 points on 13 shots in a loss to the Lakers that dropped New Orleans back into the play-in tournament, Williamson came out intent on making good in Tuesday’s rematch between the two teams. The result was breathtaking … right up until it turned heartbreaking:

What should have been a crowning moment — 40 points on 17-for-27 shooting, relentless attacking of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and anyone else in front of him, redemption for the duds in the IST semifinal and season finale — turned into another disappointment: an inability to cross the finish line, another loss to the Lakers, and an injury that cost him not only Friday’s 8-vs.-9 game against the Kings, but likely at least half of the first round, after New Orleans advanced by beating Sacramento.


The Thunder won the season series, 2-1, with the Pelicans mustering just 103.4 points per 100 possessions against Oklahoma City’s elite defense; according to Cleaning the Glass, only the lottery-bound Grizzlies, Spurs and Trail Blazers scored less frequently and efficiently against OKC than New Orleans did.

The Pelicans’ lone win came back in November, with Ingram, Alvarado, Marshall and Trey Murphy III all sidelined. Despite all those absences, the Pelicans erased a 22-point first-half deficit thanks largely to dominating the possession game — forcing 14 turnovers that led to 23 points, and hauling in a season-high 22 offensive rebounds that produced 14 more field goal attempts and led to 27 second-chance points:

(The Thunder also shot just 7-for-34 from 3-point range in the loss — the third-worst long-distance outing of the season for the NBA’s most accurate team.)

In Oklahoma City’s first win — which Zion missed with a bone bruise in his left foot — the Thunder held New Orleans to just 83 points on 39% shooting in what would wind up being the Pelicans’ worst offensive performance of the season. In the second, they won a firefight, weathering a 29-point, 10-assist night from Zion by going 26-for-35 (74.3%) in the paint and 15-for-34 (44.1%) from beyond the arc, and ripping off a 12-0 run in the final 3:10 to eke out the victory:

All told, the Pelicans scored 108.5 points per 100 possessions against OKC’s defense in 71 minutes with Williamson on the floor … and a microscopic 91.4 points-per-100 in 73 minutes without him. For however long Zion’s hamstring keeps him on the shelf, head coach Willie Green’s going to have to find lineups that can score enough without him to hang with Oklahoma City. If he can’t, the Pelicans might not linger long enough to give Zion a chance to make a heroic late-series comeback.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - NOVEMBER 1: Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicans plays defense against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half at Paycom Center on November 1, 2023 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

The All-NBA vs. All-Defense matchup to watch. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

Matchup to watch

SGA vs. Herb

Honestly, in terms of overall impact on the score of the game, this might not be the most important matchup in the series. That might be Holmgren and Jonas Valančiūnas, since “stretch stringbean vs. low-block bruiser” could be a stylistic pivot point for the run of play. It could also be Jalen Williams vs. … whoever’s guarding Jalen Williams, since that was mostly Zion during the regular season, and dealing with OKC’s second option would represent a daunting physical challenge for the likes of McCollum, Murphy or Ingram.

But when you get a chance to see First-Team All-NBA vs. First-Team All-Defense — on my ballot, anyway — for a full series? Man, that’s the good stuff:

Gilgeous-Alexander shot 5-for-14 against Jones this season, according to the NBA’s matchup data, with three assists, one turnover and just one shooting foul drawn. I don’t suspect Herb will keep the MVP candidate under wraps for the entire series; if he can slow him down enough to keep OKC from reaching escape velocity, though, it would do wonders for the Pelicans’ chances of sticking around in the series and finding a path to the upset.

Closing lineups

Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have two of the NBA’s 20 most-used fourth-quarter lineups. Both of them feature the quartet of Gilgeous-Alexander, J-Dub, Holmgren and Dort.

One is the standard starting lineup, with the 6-foot-8 Giddey — whose size and passing vision help bolster OKC’s rim pressure and interior playmaking, especially on inbounds plays — in the fifth spot. That group has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions overall, and has performed well late, too — plus-36 in 68 fourth-quarter minutes.

The other is a variant that Daigneault will dial up if an opponent tries to muck up Oklahoma City’s offense by stashing a big man on Giddey — who attempted just three 3-pointers in 25.1 minutes per game this season, and barely made a third of them. This version replaces Giddey with Isaiah Joe, who is a shooter-shooter — 4.5 triple tries in just 18.5 minutes per game, drilling 41.6% of them — and has blitzed opponents by 40 points in 56 fourth-quarter minutes. Joe’s presence as a ghost-screen-and-flare-out threat has supercharged OKC’s offense to the tune of a league-best-caliber 127.7 points-per-100.

Other players might get in the mix: Gordon Hayward or Aaron Wiggins to split the difference between Giddey’s size and Joe’s shooting; Cason Wallace for another point-of-attack stopper; Jaylin Williams for another big body, etc. Mostly, though, expect the Thunder to continue rolling with the style and personnel that have made them so hard to handle.

New Orleans Pelicans
The Pels’ two most frequently used fourth-quarter lineups both feature Williamson. They also feature Nance, an indication of how much Green trusts and values the 6-foot-8 combo big’s defensive versatility and connective passing in late-game situations.

As valuable as Nance can be, though, a steadier diet of Valančiūnas might be in order in this matchup. New Orleans has grabbed about a league-average share of its own misses in the minutes that Valančiūnas has played without Williamson this season; those extra opportunities could be lifelines if shots aren’t falling. Maximizing the strength advantage that the 265-pound Valančiūnas will have over the 195-pound Holmgren on the interior could pay dividends, too — maybe enough to make up for whatever you’d be giving up by asking JV to guard a floor-spacer like Chet on the other end.

Whichever big slots in the middle, I’d expect to see heavy doses of the perimeter quartet of Ingram, McCollum, Jones and Murphy, with the ball primarily in Ingram’s hands — and, perhaps, more finishing opportunities for Murphy, who averaged 14.8 points per game and shot 60% inside the arc in addition to bombing away from beyond it. That foursome has blitzed opponents by 19.6 points-per-100 this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, faring well whether it’s Valančiūnas or Nance on the back line.

One thing worth noting: When Ingram didn’t have it against the Lakers on Wednesday, Green went away from him down the stretch — even after Williamson strained his hamstring — in favor of sticking with Alvarado, whose two-way play, court vision and overall juice had been instrumental in New Orleans’ comeback effort. Ingram responded beautifully on Friday, with 24 points, six rebounds, six assists and some engaged defense to lead the charge against the Kings. But now that Green has shown a willingness to look elsewhere if he thinks it gives New Orleans the best chance of winning, it wouldn’t be too shocking to see him do it again.


Thunder in six. The overall depth of talent on New Orleans’ roster means the Pelicans can remain competitive, even against an elite opponent and without one of their top guns. Even so: I think the Pels’ best chance of pulling the upset was Zion just Hulk-smashing Chet and OKC’s smaller help defenders to smithereens to the tune of like 38 points per game for two weeks. Maybe he comes back, and he’s able to give Green something. I think that particular ship has sailed, though — and that’s enough for me to pick OKC to sail on.

Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sun., April 21 @ Oklahoma City (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 2: Wed., April 24 @ Oklahoma City (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 3: Sat. April 27 @ New Orleans (3:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 4: Mon. April 29 @ New Orleans (TBD)
Game 5: Wed., May 1 @ Oklahoma City (TBD)*
Game 6: Fri. May 3 @ New Orleans (TBD)*
Game 7: Sun., May 5 @ Oklahoma City (TBD)*
*if necessary

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