Golden State Warriors: 5 Keys to Slowing Down Red-Hot PelicansApril 25, 2018
Golden State Warriors: 5 Keys to Slowing Down Red-Hot Pelicans
With a gentleman's sweep of the San Antonio Spurs, the Golden State Warriors are into the Western Conference semifinals and onto their first true test of the postseason.
For as well as the Spurs are coached and as talented as LaMarcus Aldridge is, the Spurs never stood a chance without Kawhi Leonard.
A similar sentiment might have been cast on the New Orleans Pelicans just a few weeks back. But after blitzing the Portland Trail Blazers with the solitary sweep of the opening round, Anthony Davis and Co. are sprinting into this series as the NBA's hottest squad.
They've lost once in the month of April. They've reeled off nine consecutive victories, five by double-digits and just a couple by two possessions or less. They have two of the playoffs' top-six scorers (Davis and Jrue Holiday), the assists leader (Rajon Rondo) and the most efficient offense.
This potential pushover has become a problem. Here are the five keys for Golden State avoiding the upset.
5. Turning Rajon Rondo into a Jump-Shooter
At this point, everyone knows about the mid-April to June exploits of Rajon Rondo's alter ego, right? If not, just ask Blazers fans about Playoff Rondo, who simultaneously sliced through their defense with pinpoint passes and silenced Portland's scoring guards at the other end.
"I think there is a sense of confidence that he has, especially this time of the year," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, per Anne M. Peterson of the Associated Press.
Well, here's the thing—Playoff Rondo is a career 27.6 percent three-point shooter. That's actually worse than his regular-season rate (30.9).
Rondo is a brilliant passer and, when he wants to be, a disruptive defender. But he's not a shooter. At 32 years old, he never will be. His 60.4 career free-throw percentage can attest to that.
Somehow, Golden State needs to coax him into thinking he is one. Remember when the Warriors basically stopped guarding Tony Allen to save their 2015 title run? A less-extreme version of that strategy—with too much space, Rondo will find passing windows—could help slow down this attack.
New Orleans went 3-5 this season when Rondo attempted five or more triples. One of those losses came against Golden State, which always looks to exploit a weakness if it perceives one.
The more shots Rondo takes, the less impact he has as a passer. More importantly, those are shots that aren't going to Davis, Holiday and Nikola Mirotic.
4. Maximizing Depth Advantage
While this looks like the most NBA help Davis has ever had, that says more about the rest of his Pelicans tenure than it does the current squad.
Granted, he'd much prefer being part of a fine four than doing all the heavy lifting as a one-man army. But once you get past Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo—the latter two of whom had below-average player efficiency ratings just last season—where else can Davis look for support?
No one else has a PER above 9.6 in the playoffs—league average is 15.0. E'Twaun Moore's scoring average is down five points per game from the regular season. Ian Clark's up-and-down campaign suggests his hot shooting could disappear at any time. Solomon Hill and Cheick Diallo were a combined minus-24 over 79 minutes in the first round.
The Warriors, meanwhile, have nine different players with double-digit PERs this postseason. And that group doesn't include Stephen Curry (who's recovering from an MCL sprain), Zaza Pachulia (who hasn't played in the first round but made 57 starts this season), Jordan Bell (who entered the playoffs with an 18.0 PER) or Nick Young (career 12.9 PER).
With a healthy Curry, Golden State should comfortably win the numbers games when it comes to stars and competent subs. Considering these were two of the NBA's five fastest teams this season, the Warriors can get a lot of mileage out of having fresher legs and extra bodies.
3. Throwing the Kitchen Sink at AD
There's no good answer for how to corral Davis. That's probably just as well, since there's also no consistent answer to Golden State's center spot.
"It'll just be matchup based," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per Bay Area News Group's Logan Murdock. "There's a reason we've been playing everybody over the last month. We want to get a feel for who's best in certain combinations."
No matter how the Warriors handle their frontcourt rotation, they won't stop Davis from getting his numbers. He torched them for 33.0 points and 14.0 rebounds in three regular-season meetings, similar marks to what he supplied when these two teams tussled in the first round of the 2015 playoffs (31.5 points and 11.0 rebounds).
The real goal is to make Davis work, and do so without losing containment of his support scorers. Golden State might consider utilizing its full complement of bigs—or most of them, at least—to try to make him uncomfortable by switching up its looks.
Bell and Kevon Looney are options for their mobility and versatility. McGee's length and athleticism should help in short bursts, provided he isn't disastrous defending the pick-and-roll. While Davis can run circles around Pachulia and David West, the two bruisers might warrant a couple of minutes just to throw some muscle at him. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant could share the assignment in the series' biggest spots.
If any of that knocks Davis a bit off his game, New Orleans doesn't have a counter. The Pelicans went just 4-12 when the Brow scored fewer than 20 points this season.
2. Limiting Turnovers
If this feels like it's always a key for the Dubs, that's because it is.
When you have more talent than anyone, you become your own biggest threat. Plus, so much of Golden State's potency is tied to playing fast and loose, the style often tightropes between relentless and reckless.
But ball control holds extra importance here because Golden State will get burned if it fuels New Orleans' fiery attack. The Pelicans averaged the third-most fast-break points in the regular season (15.3 per game). They have improved their ranking (first) and output (16.8 per game) during the playoffs.
"Nobody's favoring the Pelicans in this series, but they do have a slight edge on many of the other teams in the NBA in this respect: They put the ball in the basket," CBS Sports' Colin Ward-Henninger wrote. "You listen to coach after coach after coach talk about how you absolutely must score in order to beat the Warriors. ... They've found the winning formula between the incredible one-on-one ability of Davis and Holiday, the pace-pushing, distributing talents of Rajon Rondo, and a spread-the-floor shooting attack led by Nikola Mirotic."
The only time Golden State lost to New Orleans this season, it coughed up 17 giveaways that led directly to 26 Pelicans points. That's basically the blueprint behind the Warriors' lone slip-up in the opening round, too, when 18 turnovers became 21 points for the San Antonio Spurs.
This series will feature tons of scoring and speed. That should play right into Golden State's hands, and it will as long as it values offensive possessions properly.
1. Getting Stephen Curry Back and Healthy
Is Curry a necessity for toppling New Orleans? Not necessarily.
The Pelicans have neither a good defensive answer for Durant, nor a shooter of Thompson's caliber. And if you're going to throw any defender at Davis, Green—a Swiss-army knife and reigning Defensive Player of the Year—is about as good an option as there is.
But a healthy Chef could transform this series from a potentially intriguing matchup into a possible snoozer.
Curry has been the Association leader in per-game plus/minus in three of the last four seasons. During the other (2015-16), his 12.9 finished second to Green's 13.2. No Warrior had a higher on-court rating (plus-14.7) or a lower off-court mark (plus-2.9) this year than the two-time MVP, who last suited up on March 23.
How close is his return? That's hard to tell. Earlier this month, league sources told Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania that Curry was targeting a second-round return. Kerr's most recent update came without a timeframe.
"Steph is not going to play anytime soon," Kerr said on April 22, per Bay Area News Group's Mark Medina. "But he's come along well and has looked good in practice."
If Curry is close to full strength, the Warriors are the same wrecking ball they've been the past three seasons. That's more than enough to take care of the Pelicans, even as they're hitting their peak.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.