As the tenth seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs will play a road game against the ninth seeded New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. The winner of this play-in game advances to the final stage of the play-in tournament, while the loser is, like LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, out for the season officially and won’t be seen again until the fall.
What do the Spurs need to do to win and keep their season alive? Here are the five key matchups to watch.
1. Dejounte Murray vs. CJ McCollum
Since being traded to the Pelicans from the Portland Trail Blazers and leaving Damian Lillard’s side, CJ McCollum has played more point guard than he ever has in his career. The results have been very positive. Not only is he scoring, he’s setting up teammates while showing he can shoulder the lead playmaking responsibilities of a potential playoff team.
To slow down McCollum, the Spurs need Dejounte Murray to apply pressure early and often. If he can force the ball out of McCollum’s hands, that’d be the best way to slow New Orleans’ offensive attack. Devin Vassell slowing Brandon Ingram would also be really helpful but the primary focus needs to be on making life difficult for McCollum.
2. Jakob Poeltl vs. Jonas Valanciunas
For the second straight season, the Spurs go up against Jonas Valanciunas in a must-win play-in game. Last year as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Valanciunas dominated inside to the tune of 23 points, 23 rebounds and three blocked shots. Jakob Poeltl got pushed around all night by Valanciunas and had one of his worst games of the season. Tomorrow, Poeltl needs a much better showing to give the Spurs a chance to win.
Poeltl’s redemption will start with staying out of foul trouble. If he can remain on the floor, Poeltl’s focus needs to be on keeping Valanciunas off of the offensive glass. On the other end, Poeltl should try to use his mobility advantage to get buckets in transition and be a consistent pick-and-roll threat.
3. Keldon Johnson vs. Jaxson Hayes
Keldon Johnson is one of the league’s shortest starting power forwards. Jaxson Hayes is one of the league’s tallest starting power forwards. This matchup will be a fascinating one to watch and could determine which team escapes with a victory.
For Johnson and the Spurs, the key will be keeping Hayes away from the rim. He’s an elite athlete for a 6-foot-11 big man but his perimeter skills are still primitive. Johnson needs to get back in transition and do all he can to keep Hayes out of the paint. Offensively, while Hayes won’t be asked to defend Johnson in halfcourt settings, Johnson should find opportunities to score on the fast break before the Pelicans can set their defense. The Spurs need to get him the ball early in possessions and Johnson needs to put his head down and use his big body to bully his way to the hoop.
4. Alabama Rookie vs. Alabama Rookie
A year ago, Herbert Jones and Josh Primo were teammates at Alabama. Jones was the 35th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft by the Pelicans, while the Spurs selected Primo 12th overall. Jones not only has outplayed Primo as a rookie, he’s been one of the best rookies in his entire class, starting 69 games while being an elite defender since Day 1. That said, Jones being ahead of Primo in his basketball development shouldn’t be a surprise since Jones is more than four years older than Primo.
Tomorrow, expect both Alabama rookies to be in the starting lineup. Not much is expected from rookies in pressure packed situations but if either one can author a standout performance, that’d help his team immensely.
5. Lonnie Walker IV vs. Pelicans Bench
The Pelicans have a talented starting lineup but their bench doesn’t typically offer a ton of production, particularly in terms of scoring. That’s why Lonnie Walker IV is a vital piece to the puzzle in the play-in game. If he can have a high scoring game from off the bench, that could spark San Antonio’s bench unit and provide a needed advantage.
Walker is dealing with a sore back but that didn’t stop him from scoring 24 points in 27 minutes in the last game he played. From February 12th to March 16th, he averaged 18.7 points per game on 47.1% shooting from the field and 38.8% shooting from three-point range. That’s the type of offensive production the Spurs need on Wednesday night.
Last year, Walker played poorly in the play-in game. If he can be a difference-maker against the Pelicans, that could go a long ways toward convincing the Spurs to give him a second contract this summer when he becomes a free agent.