No team has been more surprising or provided us with more storylines early in the postseason than the New Orleans Pelicans.
The doubt that was created after all-star center DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles tendon on Jan. 26, the elevated play of Jrue Holiday down the stretch of the season, and the utter domination of the Blazers in round one of the playoffs by Anthony Davis and company is like something straight out of a feel-good sports movie.
And the most fascinating part of that movie could be on deck.
With the Golden State Warriors closing out their series against the Spurs on Tuesday night with a 99-91 win in Game 5, we are going to see how the smaller, faster-paced, Boggie-less Pelicans fare in a best-of-seven series against a Golden State team that has beaten them in 20 of their last 22 meetings.
The most recent matchup between the two teams was April 7, when New Orleans beat Golden State 126-120 at Oracle Arena. It marked the Pelicans first win in the series since April 7, 2015, when they beat the Warriors 103-100 at Smoothie King Center.
“They came out and said this was going to be a scrimmage game,” said Davis in his post-game interview on Fox Sports, following that big win three years ago. “We kind of took that personally.”
As personal as things got then, the Warriors were still a much better team than the Pelicans. Golden State went on to sweep New Orleans in round one of the playoffs en route to the 2015 NBA World Championship.
But this season, in the Pelicans’ first playoff appearance since that quick exit three years ago, the matchup is something worth paying attention to – especially if Stephen Curry remains sidelined early-on in the series.
This year’s April 7 matchup between the two teams is the only one that included Nikola Mirotić, who was acquired by New Orleans in February. It was also the only game between the two this season that didn’t include Cousins and Curry, who sprained his ankle on March 23.
The Pelicans entered Saturday’s Game 1 in Oakland on a nine-game winning streak and with a three-day advantage in the form of rest. It didn’t matter, as Golden State dismantled them to the tune of a 123-101 victory.
Davis and Holiday played like a duo on a mission against Portland, as they averaged 33 and 27.8 points, respectively, during the series and led a smothering defensive effort that forced the ball out of the hands of what was one of the best backcourts in the league throughout the regular season.
Under fourth-year head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors are 52-16 in the playoffs, advancing to each of the last three NBA Finals, winning two of them.
Since adding a nine-time all-star in Durant ahead of last season, they are now 21-2 in playoff games.
Even though Alvin Gentry never coached Durant, the Pelicans head coach knows all-too-well the challenge Kerr’s team presents. Prior to becoming the New Orleans coach in 2015, he was the Warriors’ associate head coach and played an integral part in coordinating the offense that swept the Pelicans during their last playoff appearance.
After completing the sweep of the Trail Blazers on Saturday, Gentry was asked how far he believes his team can go against a team with as many weapons as Golden State.
“I just want to out-coach Steve,” he joked. “That’s all. I want to out-coach Steve Kerr. If we do that, then I don’t care.”
But, seriously … Gentry is going to have to out-coach Kerr to beat his former boss and four all-stars. Davis and Holiday also need to continue to play like two men on a mission, Rajon Rondo is going to have to keep reminding us how good he can be in the playoffs, and Mirotić could be the X-factor for the Pelicans. If the versatile big-man can lock in on defense and make shots, the Pelicans have a chance to make this a long, must-watch series.
As well as Gentry’s team played at the end of the regular season, and in the first round, it is fair to wonder if that level of execution is sustainable in a playoff series against a team with as many stars as the Warriors.
Even without Curry, the answer is most likely no. What New Orleans did against Portland was as close to perfect as you can get against a good team.
But don’t expect the feel-good sports flick that is the Pelicans to end without a fight. Even though they almost certainly won’t be able to execute at the level that they did against the Blazers, there are many reasons to believe New Orleans will make things very tough for Golden State.
Having played in just eight playoff games, Davis is averaging 32.3 points (258 points total) in the postseason. Over the last 40 years, only Michael Jordan (283) and LeBron James (266) have scored more points in their first eight playoff games. Now, we get to see what Davis can do in a post-season duel against the reigning NBA Finals MVP.
Playoff Rondo is also a real thing. The 2008 NBA Champion is averaging 14.2 points, 9.2 assists and just 2.8 turnovers in the postseason—a nice leap forward after averaging 10.5 points, 8.5 assists and 2.9 turnovers during the regular season. Since the beginning of January, New Orleans is 13-0 when Rondo dishes out 12 or more assists. He had 17 assists against the Warriors on April 7.
Holiday was limited with a lower-leg injury the last time the Pelicans met the Warriors in the playoffs, but this time we’ll get to see what he can do on both ends in a best-of-seven series against Thompson. Less than three weeks ago, he scored 25 points, making 55.6 percent of his shots from the field, against Golden State.
Mirotic’s ability to spread the floor and knock down threes was also huge in the Pelicans’ win over the Warriors earlier this month. He scored 28 points, making 10-of-18 from the field, including 6-of-11 from deep.
The Pelicans are one of the few teams in the league with the defensive versatility and speed to slow the Warriors, and the scoring ability to hold their own. Even though the talent, playoff experience and coaching favors Golden State, the Warriors are very aware that this is not the same New Orleans team they faced in the 2015 playoffs.
“Alvin has got those guys playing at an amazing pace, very up-tempo,” said Thompson, following Tuesday night’s close-out win over the Spurs. “Jrue Holiday is looking like an all-NBA type of point guard with his ability to defend and run the team.
“I’ve seen Anthony Davis. I’ve seen plenty of highlights of what he’s doing this postseason and it’s amazing. So that’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
Of course, the challenge will be even greater for the Pelicans. But, if we’ve learned anything about them over the last month, it’s that they’re up for a challenge.