Top-seeded Thunder say their maturity is more important than the youth heading into the playoffs against the Pelicans

By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After asking what seemed like the millionth question about how young his team is, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault explained why it’s not relevant in Oklahoma City’s case.

“Age is just a number, and there is a difference between youth and adulthood,” the 39-year-old coach said. “When you’re 23 and an adult, that’s a good thing. You know, when you’re 33 and an adult, that’s a good thing. If you’re 23 and immature, it won’t help you. When you’re 53 and still immature, you don’t have much time left to figure that out.”

The Thunder, the youngest team in NBA history to be seeded No. 1, open a Western Conference playoff series at home against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.

While Daigneault praises his team’s maturity, Thunder players are well aware that outsiders spend their youth wondering whether Oklahoma City is vulnerable. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are both 25, Jalen Williams just turned 23, and Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey are 21.

That group helped the Thunder post a 57-25 record at the end of the regular season.

“Too young, right?” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’ve been hearing that all year. It won’t change. We’re still young. We’ll probably be young for another four or five years. We don’t worry about it. We worry about what happens within these four walls.”

New Orleans doesn’t believe in rumors of weakness. After all, the Thunder beat the Pelicans in the Play-In tournament last year and won two of three regular-season games this season.

“We know Shai will be pressing all night,” New Orleans forward Brandon Ingram said. “They have a very, very good team with good defensive guys. … We have to be prepared for that. We have to go into OKC with a sense of urgency, especially defensively, and then just try to find our best offense.

As the Thunder grow tired of hearing about their youth, the Pelicans are once again hearing questions about how they will play without Zion Williamson.

After straining his left hamstring while reaching the 40-point mark in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, Williamson underwent imaging and further testing on Wednesday and was essentially put on the shelf for two weeks.

That means he isn’t expected to play in New Orleans’ first four games of the first round.

He will then be re-evaluated to see if he is ready to resume basketball activities. That’s not a certainty given his body type (listed at 284 pounds) and injury history.

It’s a big loss: Williamson averaged 23.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the regular season.

However, the Pelicans have been through this before. Last season, a hamstring injury sidelined Williamson for more than three months and he was unable to return in time for the play-in loss to the Thunder.

The good news for the current core of this Pelicans team is that they have a history of being competitive without him. They are 8-5 this season with him out. Two years ago, the Pelicans made the playoffs, winning two playoff games against eventual champion Golden State without Williamson playing in a single game all season.

In Williamson’s absence, the Pelicans will rely on players across the lineup to play bigger roles — especially Ingram, who is averaging 20.9 points per game.

“I have more of a scoring role,” Ingram said. “Just a little bit more – be more aggressive. The margin for error is now much shorter. Every time we get to the floor we have to make good shots, make defensive stops and rebound the basketball. We know this is the most important for the play-offs.”

Daigneault said the Pelicans are dangerous even without Williamson.

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

The Thunder are trying to win their first playoff series since the 2016 Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still the stars back then. The Thunder then took a 3-1 lead against the 73-win Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before falling apart and losing the series 4-3. Since then, the Thunder have lost four first-round series and missed the playoffs three times.

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 30.1 points per game this season, third best in the league. New Orleans will counter with two very capable defensemen: Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado.

Jones averaged 1.4 steals per game this season, while Alvarado averaged 1.1 steals in just 18.4 minutes per game. Both are also high-level ball defenders.

“Those guys are very aggressive when he’s on the floor,” Daigneault said. “They try to deny the ball. They ball pressure. They have done that very consistently with (Gilgeous-Alexander). That is what we expect from them again.”

Holmgren was excellent as a rookie, averaging 16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He has quickly established himself as one of the best rim protectors in the league. But he is of slight build, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 208 pounds. He will sometimes be paired with New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas, who weighs 270 pounds on his 7-foot frame.

“A very good player,” Holmgren said. “Super physically low, big body, skilled in the post with the ball in his hands. He can create different looks for them when they have him there.

Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren have received a lot of attention, leaving Williams’ growth in his second season overlooked by some.

The 6-6 guards averaged 19.1 points per game on 54% shooting overall and 42.7% shooting from 3-point range. Last season he finished second for Rookie of the Year.

CJ McCollum may be the most overlooked Pelicans player. He averaged 20 points per game and shot 43% from three-point range this season. He has averaged at least 20 points nine years in a row and never made an All-Star team.

New Orleans forward Larry Nance Jr. went off the rails a bit while showing confidence in his team.

“So we have a lot of respect for them (Thunder), but respectfully I’m betting on Pels,” Nance said before quickly clarifying that he didn’t mean that literally.

“I’m not betting on anything,” he exclaimed. “I don’t have a gambling app. None of that!”


AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.