If you didn’t know a thing about basketball and you’ve been watching TV or videos online, you would think that tonight’s game between the Spurs and the Pelicans was a winner-take-all game for the championship. Tonight has been hyped up to be a coronation of sorts, with the debut of Pelican’s rookie Zion Williamson. Williamson, the freakish athlete who is about to make the most hyped rookie debut since that of LeBron James nearly 17 years ago, has missed the last few months recovering from a torn meniscus that he suffered during preseason play. He returns to an interesting and young team that finds itself in the thick of the playoff hunt. The Pelicans have had a season full of ups and downs that reached its lowest point during a 13-game losing streak. An 11-5 record in their last 16 games has them at 17-27, just 2 wins in back of the Spurs and 3 wins behind the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
While the situation is nowhere near what it has been hyped up to be (it is, after all, a game in mid-January against two teams below .500), the playoff implications make it one that San Antonio must take seriously, making sure they don’t get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding tonight. A win and a Grizzlies’ loss could have them in the 8th seed by the end of the night, while also keeping this seemingly surging-Pelicans team off of their heels.
San Antonio Spurs (18-23) at New Orleans Pelicans (17-27)
January 22, 2020 | 8:30 PM CT
Watch: ESPN, FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)
Spurs Injuries: Rudy Gay (illness — probable), DeMarre Carroll (illness — OUT)
Pelicans Injuries: Kenrich Williams (back— OUT), Derrick Favors (back -- questionable), Jrue Holiday (elbow — probable), JJ Redick (hamstring — probable), Jahlil Okafor (back — questionable}, Josh Hart (ankle — questionable), Zion Williamson (knee — probable)
The Spurs need THIS Derrick White (again)
It can be argued that Derrick White saved the Spurs last season. His insertion into the starting line-up following both a torn ACL for Dejounte Murray and a foot injury of his own coincided with a turnaround for a team that desperately needed it. Now fighting for the playoff lives once again, the Spurs could use more of the guy that showed out with a season-high 25 points (on 9/14 shooting) against the Phoenix Suns on Monday night:
White is at his best when he is probing a defense and looking to be aggressive with the ball. At times, he relishes a bit too much in the role of distributor, highlighted by the fact that this was just the 2nd time in his last 10 games that he attempted double-digit shot attempts. Part of that has to do with playing mainly with the free-flowing offense of the 2nd unit, but good things generally happen when White is being aggressive and looking for his shot. Maybe tonight
Zion Williamson is ready to go, but how much of an impact will he have tonight?
The Spurs come into tonight’s game with a bit more knowledge on the Pelican’s star rookie than most other teams. That would be because they’ve seen him in action already, during a 123-114 Pelicans victory in a preseason game that would prove to be Williamson’s final glimpse of NBA action before tearing his meniscus. Scoring 22 points (8/11 shooting) and collecting 10 rebounds, Williamson displayed a lot of the things that have been discussed concerning him since he got to Duke. The freakish athleticism that allows him to sky for rebounds and finish off thunderous alley-oops, a solid handle that allows him to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket, and that relentless motor that allows him to put it all together were all there:
Pelicans’ head coach Alvin Gentry has said in the past that Williamson, who just returned to practice only a few weeks ago, will be on a minutes-restriction. Recently, that minutes restriction, along with the rest of New Orlean’s plan for the young player, was alluded to in a tweet by ESPN’s Andrew Lopez:
Also in here: plan is for Zion Williamson to start on Wednesday night.— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) January 21, 2020
Pelicans want to play him in short bursts and he won’t have a hard minutes restriction. Still expect him to be closer to 15-20 mins instead of 30-35. https://t.co/ms3tIoQAUf
If the 19-year old can stay healthy, his career could be a major part of the future story of the NBA, but what does his presence mean for the Spurs tonight? Players will need to be on constant alert with him on the court, especially in transition where he can really get out and run. As soon as a shot goes up, Williamson MUST be accounted for and boxed out appropriately to avoid killer offensive rebounds and put-back shots. In the half court, the Spurs could try to zone up on him in the hopes of forcing him into jumpers, an area of his game that needs work.
Vegas Line: Pelicans -3.5, O/U 236.5
For the Pelicans fans’ perspective, visit The Bird Writes.
PtR’s Gamethread will be up this afternoon for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.