The San Antonio Spurs had a chance to sneak into the NBA Playoffs last season, but one man was largely responsible for shutting the door on that. On Wednesday, he'll be on the other side of the court once again, this time wearing a different uniform but with the same opportunity.
The Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies went down to the wire last May, with Memphis ultimately coming out on top 100-96 and winning the second game over Golden State to make the playoffs. The biggest contributor to ending San Antonio's bid was undoubtedly their starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, who put up a massive 23-point, 23-rebound performance.
Meanwhile, Jakob Poeltl had just 10 points and 10 rebounds in the contest to go along with his five personal fouls. Wednesday will be his opportunity for revenge. There's no doubt that the Austrian center has improved by leaps and bounds this season, emerging as one of the best defensive bigs in the NBA. Still, he'll have his hands full with the third-best offensive rebounding team on the other side.
Containing Valanciunas even a little bit would've meant the difference between a win and loss last season, and the Spurs absolutely can't afford to let him go off this time around. Not with other weapons like CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram to worry about already.
A Group effort on the glass will be the biggest key
I recently wrote that Poeltl will be the most important player in the showdown with New Orleans for the reasons I've already stated. But the fact is the Spurs will need everyone to hit the glass hard against the Pelicans' rotation that includes three guys measuring 6-11.
Keldon Johnson has particularly picked up his efforts on the boards in recent weeks and has done a good job of getting his when facing New Orleans. He'll be crucial toward an upset win as well, and his help with clearing missed shots will be a big reason.
Beyond Poeltl and Johnson, it would be nice to see other guys like Devin Vassell and Josh Primo gang rebound to help out, because we know Dejounte Murray will already be doing so.
One thing is for sure -- the Spurs have to keep a body on Jonas for as long as he's out there, whether it's from Poeltl, Zach Collins, or anyone else caught on a switch.
If they allow him to get loose to the tune of anything close to their last play-in meeting, their season might just be over Wednesday night.