San Antonio Spurs hit New Orleans with plenty of motivation

NEW ORLEANS — As one of the most playoff-tested members of Spurs’ roster, Zach Collins has become a sage among his greener teammates under the pressure of a stretch run.

But as for explaining the race for a spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament, Collins might as well have been born yesterday.

“I’m still a little confused on how this all works,” Collins said.

With the Spurs still within striking distance of 10th place in the West – which would give them the last play-in offer in the conference – Collins has a pretty good idea of ​​what the team can do to secure themselves. no more basketball at the end of the season.

“It would be great if we won the rest of our games,” Collins said. “That would give us a good chance.”

At 29-44, a nine-game winning streak to close the season doesn’t seem like a safe bet.

But winning games like Saturday night in New Orleans would go a long way toward Spurs’ goal of qualifying.

The Pelicans are 31-42, tied with the spiraling Los Angeles Lakers for ninth and 10th.

With a victory Saturday at the Smoothie King Center, the Spurs would not only win a game against New Orleans, but they would win the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“It’s a big game for us,” center Jakob Poeltl said.

If Spurs’ situation sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

Just over a week ago, on March 18, the Spurs hosted the Pelicans at the AT&T Center in a contest that resulted in the same kind of gambling implications.

They crumbled immediately and dramatically, trailing 35-10 after the first quarter en route to a demoralizing 124-91 loss.

“We went out and obviously we didn’t have our best game,” Spurs goalkeeper Devin Vassell said. “Then it’s time for revenge.”

The Spurs haven’t lost since then, winning at Golden State and Portland by a combined 39 points. In fairness, all but two points by that margin came in the Spurs’ 133-96 loss to the Trail Blazers on Wednesday at the Moda Center.

The two wins revived Spurs’ game hopes ahead of Saturday night’s rematch with New Orleans.

“It definitely helped our position and our confidence,” said Poeltl, who had a career-high six blocks in the lopsided win at Portland. “I think we always knew we were in the hunt and we had another game coming up against New Orleans. There are a lot of opportunities for us.

As usual for teams floundering at this time of year, the question of motivation arises.

The 11th-placed Trail Blazers made no secret of their desire to maximize their draft berth at the expense of wins.

Portland first signaled that desire in February when the team sent longtime star guard CJ McCollum to New Orleans.

This trade simultaneously demonstrated the Pelicans’ intent to pull out all the stops to secure a playoff berth.

New Orleans coach Willie Green acknowledged this when his club was in San Antonio last week.

“It’s a meaningful game, and we want to approach it as such,” Green said. “Both teams are fighting for a chance to make the playoffs. It’s one of 82, but it also makes a lot of sense.

The Spurs, meanwhile, find themselves somewhere between the tanking Trail Blazers and the pushing Pelicans.

The Spurs players have been candid about their inclination to pursue the playoffs, much to the delight of coach Gregg Popovich.

“I hope so,” Popovich said.

If the Spurs fail in this endeavor, a third-straight finish in the NBA Draft lottery would be a satisfying enough consolation prize for those in the team’s front office.

Spurs’ two-game winning streak in Saturday’s visit to New Orleans — along with a game in moribund Houston to end the road trip on Monday — has the team continuing to charge a playoff offer.

“Obviously we have to win more than we lose going forward,” Collins said. “New Orleans is going to be a big game that we have to have.”

With the memories of the whippings they absorbed at the hands of the Pelicans last week still fresh, Spurs landed in the Big Easy ready for revenge.

Spurs barely showed up in the encounter eight days ago, never finding their footing after giving up a 14-4 run to open the game.

McCollum led the Pelicans with 20 points in the game, his first against the Spurs in a New Orleans jersey.

“They were hungry,” Vassell said. “They came out with the first punch. We came out flat.

Thanks to the work Spurs have put in from that face factory, they come into Saturday’s game with a second chance to make up ground against the Pelicans.

Play-in or not, Collins said the Spurs arrived in New Orleans without running out of motivation in their carry-on luggage.

“I think all we have to tell ourselves to play better than we did last Friday is what we have to do,” Collins said. “Whether it’s revenge, trying to get into the qualifying game, whether it’s just pride that we don’t look like we did the other night, we’re going to have to channel that and recover this victory.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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