Lakers-Pelicans showdown Sunday: Play-in preview matchup?

Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram tries to drive past Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker.
Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram tries to drive past Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker during a New Orleans win at Arena earlier this season. Both players, who have been nursing injuries, are expected to play Sunday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The crowd stood as one, chants of “De-fense … De-fense … De-fense” rising inside Smoothie King Center, the fans urging the New Orleans Pelicans to make one last stand against the San Antonio Spurs.

When the Pelicans forced San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray into a missed shot late in the fourth quarter of a tense two-point game, the fans erupted because they knew New Orleans had another opportunity. But when rookie guard Jose Alvarado missed a three-pointer, which then led to layup for San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson, the fans sighed.

As the Pelicans walked off the court, a tough defeat in hand, one fan could be heard saying, “That’s all right. We got the King, LeBron [James] coming to town tomorrow. Let’s get those Lakers.”


The fan was right. It was time for the Pelicans to move on. The Lakers are up next Sunday and positioning for the NBA’s play-in tournament is at stake when the two teams link up for an important Western Conference matchup.

The Pelicans’ 107-103 loss to the Spurs meant that the Lakers are currently the ninth seed in the West, half a game above 10th-seeded New Orleans. San Antonio is in 11th place after its third consecutive victory, one game behind the Pelicans.

“This game against the Lakers is going to be much like today,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “We are going to play against experience. San Antonio is one of the pillars in terms of organizations, in terms of culture and winning and playing a certain style. We got the Lakers next, and LeBron is the same way. He’s won at every level that you can win at. The rest of those guys follow his lead and it’s going to be a game that is going to be challenging and a test for us, but we’re all excited to be a part of games like this.”

This week’s Lakers newsletter examines final stretch of the regular season and whether Anthony Davis will help get team into NBA play-in tournament.

For 22 consecutive years, Gregg Popovich was the one constant behind the Spurs reaching the NBA playoffs, his astute guidance making him the all-time winningest coach in history.

But San Antonio, which has won five titles under Popovich, missed the playoffs the last two seasons, and during that time, the league added the wrinkle of a play-in tournament.

“If I loved it or hated it, it wouldn’t matter,” Popovich said about the play-in games. “They don’t care. It’s there and since it’s there, you try and get it.”

Many of the fans have embraced the play-in games, keeping then engaged late in the season, their hopes alive that their team can make the tournament, which determines the last two playoff qualifiers.

That, Popovich said, is good for the health of the NBA.

“I think it’s pretty logical that the more basketball that fans can see the more they’ll like it,” Popovich said. “There are stakes involved. Fans are going to enjoy it, for sure. So, in that regard, I think it’s a real positive without any doubt. And players would rather get in than not. So, they are fired up to go. It works out.”

James sat out the Lakers’ previous game because of left knee soreness and is listed as questionable for the game Sunday. James will have had six days off to rest the knee. Dwight Howard is listed as questionable (hip soreness) and Talen Horton-Tucker (left ankle sprain) is listed as probable.

The Pelicans list Brandon Ingram (right hamstring soreness) as questionable, but he is expected to play after sitting out the loss Saturday.

If he does, it’ll give the Pelicans another weapon when they face the Lakers.

“I’ve had to play in that play-in a couple of times. I mean, it’s just better when you just make the playoffs,” said Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, who had 32 points against the Spurs. “Then you don’t have to play as many games. You kind of go through what we have to go through right now.

“But it’s all a part of the process and I think the fans enjoy it. I think it’s competitive. Some of these games matter in general, whereas in past years they didn’t matter as much. So, from a competitive standpoint, I think it increases the level of play and the meaning some of these games have down the stretch.”

The Pelicans defeated the Lakers in their previous meeting, beating them by 28 at Arena. They’ll meet again Friday in L.A. to finish the three-game season series.

Green says he knows the significance for both teams.

“We got to go through these types of games,” he said. “These games build momentum for what’s next. Now it turns out that the Lakers are next for us.”



When: 4 p.m., Sunday

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330

Update: The Pelicans (31-43) won the first meeting against the Lakers (31-42) this season, 123-95 on Feb. 27. All five New Orleans starters, including Brandon Ingram, scored in double figures as did one reserve. The Lakers are 11-24 on the road this season; only seven teams have won fewer games.