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Three things to watch, play-in edition: Thunder at Pelicans

The Pelicans didn’t expect to be here, but they also expected to have Zion Williamson with them for much of the season (if they had, maybe they wouldn’t be here.

NOBODY expected the Thunder to be here, especially after they lost No.2 pick Chet Holmgren for the season. They were supposed to be in the Victor Wembanyama tanking mix, not the postseason.

However, it’s the Thunder at the Pelicans in the win-or-go-home 9/10 play-in game in the West. The winner hops on a flight to Minnesota to take on a Timberwolves team that fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Lakers. The loser goes fishing.

Here are three things to watch out of this game.

1) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Herb Jones

The playoffs are about matchups and this one is the best of the play-in round. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made a leap this season, will get bottom-of-the-ballot MVP votes, and could be First Team All-NBA this season. He was that good and may be the best player fans don’t know about. Herb Jones is one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the league and can shut guys down.

It comes down to this: SGA led the league in drives this season (by a lot) and if he is getting into the paint and scoring/setting up others, the Thunder can win this. If Jones can turn him into a jump shooter or put the ball in the hands of the other Thunder players, the Pelicans have a good chance.

In their meetings this season, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 33.5 points per game, but despite what the numbers show Jones defended him as well as anyone. If SGA can get Jones in foul trouble it will change the game, but if Jones can slow Gilgeous-Alexander then the Pelicans become tough to beat.

2) Can the Thunder slow down Brandon Ingram? CJ McCollum?

There are matchups on the other side, as well.

Brandon Ingram averaged 24.7 points a game this season and can get his shot off over anyone because of his length and handles. If he gets going, the Pelicans’ offense doesn’t look like the bottom-10 problem it was all season. He has been critical with Zion missing so much time (although Ingram missed nearly half the season himself).

Lu Dort will get the assignment, with some help from Jaylin Williams (not to be confused with All-Rookie player Jalen Williams). Do we see an aggressive Ingram on this big stage, or does he get thrown off his rhythm and not impact the game the way he is capable?

The Pelicans also can turn to CJ McCollum for offense, but when he’s the primary creator things can be hit-or-miss.

3) Is this the Jonas Valanciunas game for the Pelicans?

While Ingram and McCollum are the primary shot creators for New Orleans, Jonas Valanciunas is capable of an offensive outburst — and he is going against an undersized Thunder front line.

The meetings between these teams have been low-scoring this season, and a player like Valanciunas getting comfortable and breaking out for more than 20 could swing the game.

The Thunder could go small to play him off the floor, but will that work? If it does, it will be advantage OKC.