The casual sports fan often complains “The NBA Playoffs are too long!” Some want the opening round to go back to a best-of-five format, especially when it comes to the 1 vs 8 matchup. What many miss, though, is that eight of the last nine seasons have featured a top seed in a series that went at least six games. Both top seeds, San Antonio and Indiana, were pushed to seven last year, while injuries turned otherwise-predictable series with dominant Chicago and Oklahoma City squads into intensely competitive matchups in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Atlanta is too balanced for bad luck to bring them down to Brooklyn’s level, so the burden of a compelling 1-8 series falls to Golden State and New Orleans.
How the Warriors Got Here
In one of the most brutal conferences ever, the Warriors became the second team in the last 15 seasons to win 67 games, and just the 10th in NBA history. Seven of the previous nine won the title, though Warriors fans know first hand what happened to the last team to do so, considering it was their team that shocked the world in defeating the 2007 Mavericks. Behind a loaded roster with likely MVP Stephen Curry, his partner-in-crime Klay Thompson, Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green, plus a host of seasoned veterans, the Warriors left the field in the dust with a +11.4 net rating, the best since the 2008 Celtics. (A cautionary tale, however: until the Spurs broke the streak last year, the five teams after those Celtics to lead the league in net rating all failed to win the title, and four failed to even reach the Finals.) First-year head coach Steve Kerr built on the foundation of the Mark Jackson Era, and with the help of an elite staff surrounding him, molded a dominant squad that’s both explosive offensively and destructive defensively.
Key Factor for the Warriors
In football, the phrase “stay ahead of the chains” refers to gaining enough yards on each play so third downs don’t become unmanageable. Well, that’s essentially what the Warriors need to do in this series. They’re the heavy favorite and the better team. If they play up to their capability, they’ll advance, but sometimes favorites (think of those Celtics again, or last year’s Pacers) can get bogged down with expectations. The Warriors have some injury-prone players and need to ensure they’re not making things harder on themselves than they have to be ahead of a likely showdown with Memphis.
How the Pelicans Got Here
Anthony Davis, destroyer of worlds, continued his ascent towards his impending acceptance of the title of Best Basketball Player on the Planet, with the nagging caveat: How good is Davis if he can’t get his team to the playoffs by Year 3? Once on the outside looking in, their competitors for the eighth seed capitulated, as Oklahoma City fell victim to a litany of injuries, while Phoenix’s feel-good story from last year came to an abrupt halt amid multiple issues, chemistry the most notable. An oddly amalgamated roster built with the intention of winning now with good-but-not-great players, New Orleans found itself below .500 after a two-week stretch peppered with losses to the dregs of the East, including Philadelphia and New York, but followed that up with a four-game winning streak. Whether you want to call them resilient, inconsistent or some combination, they later followed a pair of four-game losing streaks with four and five consecutive wins. Fans of New Orleans will forever remember Davis hitting an impossible three-pointer to beat OKC, as well as defeating the mighty Spurs in a must-win game to end the regular season, delivering the first playoff berth in Pelicans history.
Key Factors for the Pelicans
Defending Draymond Green. And by that, I mean not defending Draymond Green. In the first meeting, the only meaningful game in which Davis suited up, Golden State hammered New Orleans over the head on offense by keeping The Brow away from the rim via sticking Green on the perimeter, sometimes even as the guy with the ball. Even with Omer Asik in the game, the Warriors scored at will with back-cuts and screens thanks to Davis being out of the action. Maybe Green gets hot from deep as he did against Chicago this season, but it’s impossible to eliminate all of Golden State’s options, and Green is a functional shooter, not a great one, as he’s 33.7 percent from beyond the arc this year. If New Orleans can press Green to beat them from outside instead of hemorrhaging layups and dunks, and he does just that, they should simply tip their cap and say congratulations.
Another key for the Pellies is playing focused. Not only are the Warriors dynamite in transition, they can push the pace after a turnover or a made basket, it doesn’t matter, and the Pelicans, notably Davis, weren’t disciplined hustling the floor, leading coach Monty Williams to implore his team to find and tag a man in transition. If they don’t, the games in Oracle in particular will get away from them in a flash.
Finally, shooting will be vital for New Orleans. Without an injured Eric Gordon in that contest, the floor was quite cramped for Tyreke Evans, considering Luke Babbitt was the small forward and the team went 0-7 from distance in the first half when the game was within reach. Poor shooting from three will doom many teams, but against Golden State especially, it’s just too hard to make up points when they go on one of their hot streaks without putting in a few from downtown.
The Warriors took the first three meetings, while the Pelicans snagged the final matchup, which came long after Golden State had sewn up the top seed, leading the most recent affair to be considered a “scrimmage” by them. Whether it was a joke or not, it has turned into a minor storyline in a juvenile, passive-aggressive fashion. First the Pelicans used it for motivation, now the Warriors, never ones to back down, have chirped back:
Andrew Bogut referred to the New Orleans ball boys who he said ran the "scrimmage" joke over Anthony Davis as "clowns."
— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) April 16, 2015
There’s very little to take away from those games. As noted, Davis missed two of them, and the likes of Austin Rivers, Luke Babbitt, Alexis Ajinca, Jeff Withey and John Salmons all played roles for New Orleans. Rivers and Salmons aren’t even on the team anymore, and they managed to reacquire Quincy Pondexter to deliver much-needed shooting. Before their horrendous bench coughed it up, the Pelicans’ starters actually had a solid lead on the road in the first game these teams played back in December.
Golden State will win this series, but I think New Orleans will surprise people by keeping pace with them. It could very well be a Western Conference version of the 2011 Bulls-Pacers series, where a team led by an exciting MVP guard and a new coach who elevated them from good to juggernaut struggles in their first go-round as the favorite against an up-and-comer with a young, two-way franchise player.
Warriors in 6
Game 1: The No. 1 seed clinched long ago, Golden State has been waiting for this. New Orleans walks into a buzzsaw in Oracle.
Game 2: With many predicting a sweep after Game 1, Golden State survives a thriller as New Orleans bounces back.
Game 3: The desperate Pelicans are propelled by a crowd that hasn’t seen playoff basketball in four years.
Game 4: The Anthony Davis Game.
Game 5: Golden State shows its maturity, regaining control in a blowout.
Game 6: A competitive game, but one the Warriors generally control throughout to seal the series.