Top-seeded, more mature Thunder take on Zion-less Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault isn’t worried about leading a young team into the playoffs.

“Age is just a number,” Daigneault said. “There’s a difference between youth and maturity.”

And Daigneault’s Thunder, the second-youngest team in the NBA this season, has shown plenty of maturity this season in earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

They’ll open the playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday in Oklahoma City.

It’s the first playoff appearance for the Thunder since 2020. The only players remaining from that appearance are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Mike Muscala.

Gilgeous-Alexander is the biggest of those pieces.

His lone playoff appearance came in his first season with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Clippers.

Gilgeous-Alexander has steadily progressed during his time with the Thunder, averaging 30.1 points, 6.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals this season while shooting 53.5%.

He averaged 25.0 points and 7.0 assists in three games against the Pelicans this season.

The Thunder (57-25) took two of three from New Orleans in the regular season.

“There’s nothing that a team’s gonna throw at him that he hasn’t seen,” Daigneault said. “There’s nothing a team’s gonna throw at us that we haven’t seen.

“There’s not an infinite number of ways to play basketball, schematically, and so we’ve seen a lot of different looks over the course of the season. He’s seen a lot of different looks over the course of time.”

The Pelicans (49-33) are coming off a 105-98 play-in win over the Sacramento Kings without Zion Williamson.

New Orleans’ leading scorer suffered a hamstring injury in Tuesday’s play-in loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and is expected to be re-evaluated in two weeks.

“It changes them significantly,” Daigneault said. “He’s just such a unique player. There’s a really good version of them without him and there’s a really good version with him.

“I think they become a little bit more space oriented, pick-and-roll oriented on offense. Defensively, they do a lot more switching when he’s not in the mix.”

The Pelicans are 8-5 without Williamson this season.

If New Orleans is able to pull off the upset, especially without Williamson, Brandon Ingram figures to need to play a significant role.

Ingram struggled in his first two games after returning from a 12-game absence due to a bone bruise in his left knee.

But he had a break-out performance in the win over the Kings, scoring 24 points and playing a significant role in the Pelicans’ defensive success.

“It’s hard just trying to stay disciplined, trying to stay locked in knowing I wanted to be out on the floor,” Ingram said. “I was losing some of my conditioning a little bit and just trying to stay ready.”

Neither team has been out of the first round in several years.

New Orleans’ last series win came in 2018 when it made it to the Western Conference semifinals.

It’s been even longer for Oklahoma City.

The Thunder have lost four consecutive first-round series, with their last series win coming in 2016 when Oklahoma City made it to the Western Conference finals.