So much for the Oklahoma City Thunder's ironclad case as the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.
Since the All-Star break, the New Orleans Pelicans (36-29) have been torching the competition despite encountering a slew of injuries.
Anthony Davis missed five straight games from Feb. 23 to March 2 while battling a shoulder injury, Jrue Holiday hasn't played since Jan. 12 after suffering a stress reaction in his right leg, Tyreke Evans is gimpy after spraining his left ankle Monday versus the Milwaukee Bucks and Ryan Anderson is still without a timetable as he recovers from a sprained MCL.
Even so, New Orleans occupies the No. 8 seed by virtue of a tiebreaker with 17 games remaining.
But that's not to say the Thunder (36-29) have been a disappointment over the last month.
Russell Westbrook has recorded a triple-double in six of his last eight games, making him the first player in over 25 years to accomplish that feat, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
However, Westbrook's pure statistical domination has hardly closed the door on the Pelicans' quest to usurp the West's eighth and final playoff spot.
As you'll see below, New Orleans has rattled off one more win since Feb. 19. And while the two teams' offensive ratings are identical over the last month, the Pelicans defense has been a touch steadier.
Tied for the league lead in wins since the trade deadline, New Orleans has made the race for the right to square off against the Golden State Warriors in the first round compelling in new and unforeseen ways.
And with stars galore on both squads, it's time to break down the difficulties each team will face as the chase for postseason glory heats up.
The Road Ahead for New Orleans
The Pelicans have made tremendous strides of late, but sustaining that level of excellence during the season's home stretch will take loads of concentration and consistency. Even the slightest slip-up could represent a postseason death sentence, particularly since Oklahoma City wields star power in spades.
But we'll start with the basics.
Of the Pelicans' 17 remaining games, nine will come on the road. Five of those are against Western Conference playoff qualifiers. That's especially concerning because New Orleans is an underwhelming 14-18 away from the Smoothie King Center this season.
A quick glance at New Orleans' upcoming slate confirms as much. The Pelicans have two brutal stretches littered with contests against some of the NBA's most stout competition on deck.
Take a gander:
|New Orleans' Notable Upcoming Games|
|3/19||at Phoenix Suns||1-0 New Orleans|
|3/20||at Golden State Warriors||2-0 Golden State|
|3/22||at Los Angeles Clippers||Tied 1-1|
|3/25||vs. Houston Rockets||2-0 New Orleans|
|4/4||at Portland Trail Blazers||2-0 Portland|
|4/7||vs. Golden State Warriors||2-0 Golden State|
|4/8||at Memphis Grizzlies||2-1 New Orleans|
|4/10||vs. Phoenix Suns||1-0 New Orleans|
|4/12||at Houston Rockets||2-0 New Orleans|
|4/15||vs. San Antonio Spurs||2-1 New Orleans|
On the whole, New Orleans has three sets of back-to-backs remaining: March 19 and 20 against Phoenix and Golden State, April 3 and 4 against Sacramento and Portland and April 12 and 13 against Houston and Minnesota.
That's manageable—considering that Phoenix, Sacramento and Minnesota are all combating varying degrees of strife—but it's not ideal by any means.
"I view the rest of our schedule the way I view the season, especially in the West," head coach Monty Williams said, per Reid. "All the teams are tough and a lot of our games are on the road. But our guys have the confidence and experience now to go out on the road and to play well at home and compete. That's all you can ask for."
Possessing the West's second-hottest offense over the past 12 games, New Orleans has the firepower necessary to blaze through the competition. And with a speedy recovery from the surging Evans—who's expected to return from an ankle sprain on Sunday, according to Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer—it should be able to sustain that pace for a while longer.
The best news is that New Orleans captured a 3-1 season-series victory over the Thunder thanks to Davis' buzzer-beating heroics, which means the Pelicans own the tiebreaker should both clubs finish with identical records.
It will take strokes of good fortune and health to bring the Pelicans' unthinkable resurgence full circle, but this team has already displayed tremendous resiliency in getting to this point.
Now it's just about finishing the job.
The Road Ahead for Oklahoma City
As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal put it, "Westbrook's recent tear has been remarkable, and we have to give him a lot of credit for turning on the nitrous in Kevin Durant's absence. But he hasn't been perfect by any stretch of the imagination and has plenty of room for improvement."
To Fromal's point, Oklahoma City is just 2-5 this season in games when Westbrook tops 40 points.
This is where Kevin Durant comes in.
Oklahoma City transforms into a fringe title contender with the reigning MVP on the floor, evidenced by the club's 18-9 record when he's active. When he's watching from the sidelines, the Thunder are 18-20.
However, head coach Scott Brooks said Wednesday Durant won't be returning to the lineup for "a week to two weeks," as he continues to recover from a minor foot procedure, according to The Associated Press (via NBA.com).
But unlike New Orleans, Oklahoma City will play the majority of its remaining games at home. Specifically, 10 of the Thunder's final 17 games will take place under the roof of Chesapeake Energy Arena, where Brooks' club is 22-9 this season.
That includes showdowns against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday and Atlanta Hawks this coming Friday. If we dig in further, though, the beginning of April may be a make-or-break moment for Oklahoma City.
As the following chart indicates, the Thunder will be squaring off against projected playoff teams nearly every other night for the remainder of the season. But, boy, will the first week of April be telling.
|Oklahoma City's Notable Upcoming Games|
|3/15||vs. Chicago Bulls||1-0 Chicago|
|3/16||at Dallas Mavericks||Tied 1-1|
|3/20||vs. Atlanta Hawks||1-0 Atlanta|
|3/25||at San Antonio Spurs||1-0 Oklahoma City|
|3/29||at Phoenix Suns||2-1 Oklahoma City|
|4/1||vs. Dallas Mavericks||Tied 1-1|
|4/3||at Memphis Grizzlies||2-1 Memphis|
|4/5||vs. Houston Rockets||2-0 Houston|
|4/7||vs. San Antonio Spurs||1-0 Oklahoma City|
|4/10||at Indiana Pacers||1-0 Oklahoma City|
|4/13||vs. Portland Trail Blazers||3-0 Portland|
Oklahoma City will suffer through four back-to-backs over the next four weeks, but it will have the benefit of playing lower-caliber opponents, as Reid noted:
Pelicans have six games remaining against teams with losing records, three at home and three on the road. New Orleans is 19-12 against teams with losing records. Thunder has eight games left against teams with losing records, five at home and three on the road. It is 22-7 against teams below .500.
With Durant on the mend and a softer schedule awaiting, it's no wonder John Hollinger's ESPN.com playoff odds have Oklahoma City at a 71.1 percent chance of qualifying while New Orleans sits at 30.8 percent.
It's thrilling to watch two teams producing at levels this high scrap for one final playoff spot. Unfortunately, early season inconsistencies facilitated by injury troubles have made this an either-or proposition.
If you're forced to pick a side, it's hard to go against the Thunder.
They're 13-5 since Feb. 1—the same as the Cleveland Cavaliers—and have been cranking out points at a rate equal to that of New Orleans.
Factor in a more forgiving schedule, Durant's impending return and more high-stakes experience, and last year's Western Conference finalists should have the slightest of edges as the squads round the bend and charge down the home stretch.
An eventual first-round clash with the Golden State Warriors would present an entirely new set of questions, but Oklahoma City will be happy to try to answer those if it can take care of business in the coming weeks.
All statistics current as of March 14 and courtesy of NBA.com unless noted otherwise.