Defending champion Warriors ready for upstart Pelicans

NBA.com Global on Apr 28, 2018 06:09 PM
Defending champion Warriors ready for upstart Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 20: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors drives to the basket against the New Orleans Pelicans on October 20, 2017 at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Appropriate fear. That’s the term, adopted from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, that Steve Kerr likes to use about his team’s approach this time of year. He prefers the Golden State Warriors operate with a supply large enough to last well into June, even if we all know it isn’t always needed before then.

But if you’ve seen the same things out of the New Orleans Pelicans that Kerr and his staff surely did in their first-round sweep of the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers, an appropriate amount of fear is more than appropriate as the Warriors prepare to deal with the Pelicans in the Western Conference semifinals sans two-time Kia MVP Stephen Curry, whose availability for this series remains a mystery.

The Warriors have never seemed more vulnerable, if you believe the hype. And the Pelicans have never been better or more dangerous.

In Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans have talents capable of matching their Warriors counterparts step for step. And as long as Rajon Rondo is locked in as “Playoff Rondo” (the catalyst for six straight playoff wins dating back to last postseason in Chicago), the Warriors’ edge in seasoning isn’t nearly as dramatic in the flesh as it appears on paper.

Davis and Holiday put on an absolute show in their close-out win over the Trail Blazers, combining for 88 points to tie Boston Celtics legends John Havlicek and Jo Jo White for the most points by two teammates in any playoff game in NBA history.

And they became just the third pair of teammates to score 40 or more points on 60 percent shooting in the same playoff game. Jalen Rose and Reggie Miller (2000) and Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler are the others. Rose and Miller played for a championship that season with the Indiana Pacers while Olajuwon and Drexler won a championship that season with the Houston Rockets.

The Pelicans’ complete disruption of the Trail Blazers’ plans on both ends contributed mightily to their dismantling of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Co. And Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry didn’t have the familiarity with Portland’s DNA the way he does with the Warriors. Remember, it was Gentry who coordinated offense for the Warriors during their breakthrough championship season in 2015, before relocating to New Orleans to resurrect the Pelicans.

The giant wrinkle in that entire theory, however, is Kevin Durant. This is just his second season with the Warriors. And like everyone else in basketball, Gentry is fully aware of the difference a superstar like Durant makes for a Warriors team that was championship ready before his arrival.

Even without Curry in the lineup, Popovich’s Spurs had no answers for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the trio making up the healthy third of the Warriors’ All-Star quartet.

Scoring points for the Warriors is rarely an issue with all of the firepower on the roster. Their defensive prowess, however, remains a focus in the postseason. And they are confident in their work on that end after finding a good vibe against the Spurs, leading all playoff teams in defensive field goal percentage in the first round.

You don’t win at the rate the Warriors have the past four seasons without being ultra confident in what you can do, regardless of the opponent. Appropriate fear and ultra confidence will both be on display in this Western Conference semifinal.  

3 quick questions and answers

1. Who is the best player in this series, Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis, and will that make a difference in the final outcome? It’s Durant, given both his accomplishments and playoff experience, but it’s extremely close. These are are two of the top three or four players in the game. And yes, it will make a difference in the end. It always does. Just go back and examine the play of the two best players The Finals last year. LeBron James was a monster for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Durant outplayed him, winning Finals MVP honors and leading the Warriors to the title. As great as Davis was this season and particularly during the first round sweep of Portland, it’s hard to argue with Durant’s track record and championship results.

2. Will there be a Stephen Curry sighting in this series if to goes six or seven games? Potentially, yes, if it lasts that long. And there is no reason to believe this will be a repeat of the Warriors’ sweep of the Davis-led Pelicans from 2015. Curry is in the non-contact, on-court workout portion of his rehabilitation on his knee and will be reevaluated Friday. But Kerr insists that he is nowhere near ready to play. And given his importance to the Warriors long-term, there will be no rushing the process for Curry. Still, there is no doubt things change dramatically, for both teams, with Steph in uniform and on the court. The Warriors are so much more dynamic with him and in turn a much bigger headache to deal with for the opposition.

3. Is the Jrue Holiday who destroyed the Trail Blazers the real Jrue Holiday? And what does that mean for the Warriors? Do your homework on Holiday and you’ll find out that he was the top rated player in the nation as a high school senior and an All-Star in Philadelphia before being traded to New Orleans. And this is the first time he’s been injury and stress free. He’s arguably the most underappreciated two-way player in the league and is the league’s premier defender at his position, just ask his coach. He’s a big, physical guard capable of playing on or off the ball who can guard three positions on the defensive end. Is he really a 27.8-point (on 57 percent shooting from the floor), 6.5-assist, 4.0-rebound dynamo we saw shut down Damian Lillard in that sweep of the Trail Blazers? Maybe not … or maybe he is. His match up against Klay Thompson will be critical to the Pelicans’ chances in this series.

The number to know

114.7 -- The Pelicans have had the No. 1 offense in the postseason, having scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions in their first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. That was more than 10 points per 100 possessions more than the Blazers' eighth-ranked defense allowed in the regular season. They shot well (40 percent) from 3-point range, but also did damage inside. In fact, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead the postseason with 15.5 and 14.5 points per game in the restricted area, respectively, with Holiday's scoring at the rim seeing a huge jump from the regular season, when he averaged just 6.8 points per game in the restricted area. The Warriors protected the rim well in their first round series, allowing the San Antonio Spurs to take only 24 percent of their shots in the restricted area, down from 29 percent in the regular season. No team has seen a bigger drop. -- John Schuhmann

Making the pick

The Pelicans were the hottest team in the league in the first round, the only team to sweep. They’ve got the requisite firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors and the perfect foil for a competitive engagement of this magnitude in Rajon Rondo. But the Warriors are a different beast compared to the Trail Blazers. They’ve got elite firepower and size that the Portland simply did not. And if they get their two-time Kia MVP back sooner rather than later, they’ll have a wild card no other team in the league will have in this postseason. A feisty, tightly contested series? Sure. But another upset? Not exactly. Warriors in 6.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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