No. 2 Golden State Warriors (58-24) vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)
How They Got Here
• Warriors: By kind of sputter-slinking though a weird, disjointed, injury-flecked hangover season after winning the 2017 NBA championship … and somehow still managing to turn in the league’s most potent offense and a top-10 defense while winning 70 percent of their games. Life is good when you employ a pair of former MVPs, two more perennial All-Stars, a reserve corps full of vets who know exactly when, where and how to contribute, and one of the league’s best coaches.
We’ve only seen the full-strength, Death Lineup-enabled Warriors for a grand total of three minutes since the beginning of March, thanks to a spate of injuries that have put all four of Golden State’s leading lights and top reserve Andre Iguodala on the shelf for stretches. Stephen Curry’s still there, working his way back from an MCL sprain from which he was not not expected to return in time for Game 1 … until a blessedly uneventful return to 100 percent, full-contact practice on Thursday opened that door.
Not having Curry only mattered so much in a gentleman’s sweep of the short-handed San Antonio Spurs during which Kevin Durant dominated, Klay Thompson scorched the nets, and Draymond Green dished dimes while anchoring Round 1’s stingiest defense. Not having a full-strength Curry would figure to be a much bigger deal, though, against a team that has Anthony Davis.
• Pelicans: By bouncing back from the loss of an All-Star center, reorganizing their attack on the fly, surviving a fight through a crowded middle-of-the-West pack, and unleashing absolute hell on an unsuspecting Damian Lillard and his pals.
It felt like New Orleans might be left for dead when DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending rupture of his left Achilles tendon, but the Pelicans persevered and found a new identity over the season’s final two-plus months. The February acquisition of stretch power forward Nikola Mirotic pushed Davis (nominally, at least) up to center in Boogie’s stead, and the Pelicans have been absolutely lethal with that pairing on the floor, outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions in nearly 700 regular- and postseason minutes.
As remarkable as James Harden and LeBron James were, Davis might have been the NBA’s best player in the second half of the season, a two-way nightmare capable of scoring from anywhere against any defender while dominating on the defensive end in virtually any assignment. He proved utterly unanswerable for Portland, finishing off a four-game sweep in style with a 47-and-10 exclamation point to make the Pelicans the first team to quality for Round 2. He had help, with Mirotic bulldozing the Blazers in Game 3, point guard Rajon Rondo distributing and disrupting like there isn’t a one before the eight in the current year, and Jrue Holiday stunning an NBA world that hadn’t been paying much attention into remembering, “Oh, right, that dude was an All-Star, and man, he’s strong.” By pure performance, the Pelicans had the four best players in their first-round series. It’s going to be a bit tougher to pull that off this time.
The Warriors won the season series, three games to one. How much we can take from all that, though, is anybody’s guess.
The first three games came before Christmas — read: before Cousins’ injury, and before the Mirotic trade — and Golden State won them all by an average of 11 points per contest. The lone post-Pelicans-shakeup meeting went New Orleans’ way in the final week of the season. Despite Durant popping for a game-high 41, the Pelicans prevailed thanks to Davis (34 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four blocks, two steals), Mirotic (28 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals), Holiday (25 points, six assists, five rebounds, four assists) and Rondo (12 points, 17 assists) all roasting a Warriors defense that, for all intents and purposes, basically played on cruise control for the last couple of months of the regular season.
That game also came with Curry in a suit. (And, for what it’s worth, Iguodala sidelined, too.) Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Warriors are 16-1 against the Pelicans when Steph plays, including a four-game sweep in the first round of the 2015 postseason. His presence — the promise of his strafing, the panic it induces, the space it carves out for others — changes everything.
With a spread-out offense, a cranked-up pace, Davis at (what opponents had better hope is) the peak of his powers and a supporting cast rising to meet him, the New Orleans team we’ve seen over the past few months has looked wholly different from what came before. If Curry’s really back and 100 percent, though, are they different enough to stand toe-to-toe with the full-strength Warriors?
Matchups to Watch
• Steph vs. Jrue/Rondo, rust, time and himself: There’s no question that Curry wants to get back on the court as soon as humanly possible. Almost immediately after Steve Kerr said there was “no way” his superstar point guard would be back from his Grade 2 MCL sprain in time for the start of the playoffs, Steph announced his intentions to “prove what coach said wrong and put myself in position to get back as soon as possible.” Discretion wound up winning out, as Curry remained sidelined for the Warriors’ five-game win over San Antonio, but as he ramps up his work, it’s worth remembering that he’s played all of 28 minutes of NBA basketball in the past seven weeks. And he’ll be expected, and expecting himself, to hit the ground running in the heat of a postseason series while guarded primarily by Holiday, a potential first-team All-Defense selection, and Rondo, one of the sport’s craftiest backcourt players — a tandem whose length just reduced Lillard and C.J. McCollum to rubble.
Under normal circumstances, Curry’s eminently capable of dribbling around even elite on-ball defenders, or getting off the ball and shedding them by slaloming his way through a thicket of screens from his bigs before curling his way into a catch-and-shoot look. But if Steph’s a step slow after nearly two months on the shelf, or if he doesn’t have quite the same burst as usual when he pushes off that left knee, he could struggle to gain separation against the Pelicans’ perimeter pitbulls, throwing a wrench into the works of the Warriors’ whirring offensive machine. Against an opponent playing as well on both ends as New Orleans is right now, that could be a big problem.
• The Warriors’ “others” vs. Pelicans pressure: Golden State got the job done against San Antonio largely by leaning on ratcheted-up defensive effort, the peerless shot-making of Thompson (30-for-56 inside the arc against the Spurs, 16-for-31 outside it, a blistering .621 effective field goal percentage) and the undeniability of Durant (28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists per game vs. San Antonio). Offensively, though, it didn’t always look pretty — especially in the fourth quarter of the series-clincher, which saw the Dubs squander a double-digit lead before surviving a late Spurs push.
“Once we sort of got to the last four minutes, we’re kind of hanging on, there were some interesting possessions where we just … they doubled us, they rotated, and we didn’t keep our rhythm, our offensive flow,” Kerr told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic after Golden State’s Game 5 win.
If that defensive tactic sounds familiar to you, there’s a good chance you watched some of Pelicans vs. Blazers.
“We know New Orleans is going to do some of that, too, like they did against Portland,” Kerr said. “They sold out against Portland’s backcourt and they’ll probably do the same thing with us.”
The Pelicans were content to let the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Zach Collins fire away from the perimeter in Round 1, prioritizing smothering traps of pick-and-rolls that allowed Davis, Mirotic, Holiday and Rondo to ensure Lillard and McCollum never saw a clean catch, an uncluttered driving or passing lane or an uncontested look. The tactic completely devastated the Blazers’ offense, defusing one of the NBA’s most explosive backcourts.
Against a similarly styled Warriors attack, they’ll likely opt for a similar approach, relying on their bigs and guards to crank up the pressure on Golden State’s primary scoring and playmaking threats — namely Durant, who’s been on the ball for more in Curry’s absence than he is when they share the floor, and off-ball marathoner Thompson — in hopes of making Iguodala (28.2 percent from 3-point range during the regular season, 7-for-17 against San Antonio), Green (30.1 percent, 8-for-28) or guards Nick Young and Curry understudy Quinn Cook (a combined 6-for-20 from deep vs. the Spurs) prove they can consistently drill jumpers before thinking about dialing things back.
Durant, for his part, says he’s ready to just make the simple play to beat the trap when it comes.
“Well, I’ll just give up the ball [if they trap me],” Durant told ESPN’s Chris Haynes. “I’ll just score in different ways, try to be effective in different ways. I’ll play it possession by possession and see what happens.”
That sounds good, in theory. But if the Warriors’ other floor-spacers can’t knock down shots, and if complementary midrange scorers David West and Shaun Livingston struggle to get in rhythm, it would fall to Durant, just as it did to Lillard, to try to force the issue and get his team’s offense untracked.
Golden State will also likely be more prepared and better equipped to neutralize such aggressive traps by attacking more frequently in isolation, where Durant is a point-producing cheat code with a height advantage over nearly every defender the Pelicans would throw at him, rather than bringing a second defender to the ball in the screen game. Moving too heavily in that direction runs the risk of taking the Warriors out of their free-flowing, egalitarian identity, though, and if Durant goes through a cold snap, too, Golden State could find itself facing the same problem Portland did: Davis and company pulling the ball off the rim, screaming down the court against a scrambling defense, and wreaking havoc in transition.
(As with everything else, the presence of a fully operational Curry would mitigate these concerns greatly. Trap him up top, and he’s threading passes to Draymond to attack 4-on-3, possibly with Thompson in one corner and Durant in the other, and you’re just dead. Dial back the pressure, and Steph’s going one-on-one up top; most of the time, that means you’re dead, too.)
• How often do we get KD vs. AD? Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry’s got a easy answer for how the Pelicans planned to deal with the former MVP.
“Everybody on our team will guard Durant,” he told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “Because he’s that kind of player.”
That’s true! But the stark reality is that the Pelicans’ best lineups feature options that, like Jon’s shoes, have some problems in that matchup.
The current iteration of the Pelicans has been at its best rolling with a three-guard lineup. The starting five of Davis, Mirotic, Holiday, Rondo and E’Twaun Moore has outscored opponents by an obscene 20.8 points per 100 possessions in the regular- and postseason, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data, proving equally adept at generating great looks in an uptempo attack and leveraging their guards’ length and quickness to clamp down on all sorts of offensive opposition.
That said: Moore and Holiday are 6-foot-4, and Rondo’s 6-foot-1. If Durant’s at the three, one of them is going to have to guard him. It could be Holiday, who has played most of the second half of the season as a point guard masquerading as a small forward; he was the primary defender for most of the final matchup of the season, in which Durant scored 41 points, largely by shooting over the top of Holiday’s best intentions. Active, smaller defenders can give KD problems — think Tony Allen, in years past — and both Rondo and Holiday came up with key late-game steals on Durant in the Pelicans’ regular-season win. Still, you’d bet on Durant getting the better of those exchanges far more often than he doesn’t.
Bigger reserves Solomon Hill, Darius Miller and Cheick Diallo could also get the matchup for stretches, if Gentry wants to switch things up and put more length on Durant as a change of pace. When it matters most, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Davis — outside of maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo, as close a thing as there is to a straight-up physical match for KD — getting the assignment. Durant can take advantage of that with his quickness, handle and high release … but Davis can get him back on the other end of the floor, too.
Kerr’s been playing roulette with his big men for a while now. After a strong defensive series against the Spurs, you’d expect to see Kevon Looney get first crack at Davis, as his combination of size, quickness and instincts would make him a better match for AD than JaVale McGee (who has the length and athleticism, but whom Davis could bulldoze and who can be a liability as a team defender), Zaza Pachulia or West (of whom the reverse is true), or Jordan Bell and Damian Jones (who saw a total of 19 minutes in Round 1, and whom Kerr might not trust in this particular pairing).
Green, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will also see plenty of the matchup, and can use his strength, activity and positioning to try to push Davis out of his preferred spots and frustrate him. That’s not as easy to do as it used to be, though, and the much-bigger Davis figures to have more success bodying Draymond inside than LaMarcus Aldridge did in the previous round. So, at times, it’ll fall to Durant, who’s got the length to be able to recover after Davis bumps him and still contest his shots, to pick up the slack and try to slow down the single most dominant force in the postseason thus far. Which work-of-science-fiction-fantasy-made-real forward gets the better of such exchanges could wind up swinging the tenor of the series.
Best Reason to Watch
To see how the Warriors look back at full strength in games that matter to them for the first time in forever. To find out just what kind of hell Anthony Davis can raise against the best in the world. To learn whether Jrue’s monster turn was more fad than fact. To enjoy two of the NBA’s five fastest-paced teams and most explosive offenses trade buckets and brutalize one another in celebration of how wonderful it is that the present of this game is something out of our once-imagined future.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
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