5 Early Takeaways from Warriors' 2nd-Round Showdown vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Golden State was without Stephen Curry and less rested in Game 1, and it still sprinted to a 22-point victory.
Game 2 was closer (121-116), but between Curry's comeback and Kevin Durant's masterful 15-point fourth quarter, the Warriors still picked up their sixth victory in seven tries of the 2018 NBA postseason.
New Orleans was always facing astronomical odds to become only the second team to dispatch the postseason Dubs since 2015. But the goalposts keeping moving further from the Pelicans, who are hemorrhaging points defensively and struggling to get enough out of Anthony Davis and his DeMarcus Cousins-less supporting cast at the opposite end.
As this series shifts over to the Crescent City, let's break down the five biggest things we've learned already.
5. Rotation Remains Fluid
Remember Zaza Pachulia—burly big man, massive dome, maybe the least popular man in San Antonio? You know, Golden State's starting center 57 times this season? Well, he's yet to log a second of playoff basketball, and these absences have nothing to do with health.
This rotation is loaded with full-time centers or small-ball bigs who can play the 5. Different series present different tests, and so far Pachulia has been passed over to contend with quicker, more agile, perimeter-oriented big men.
"We play by committee," head coach Steve Kerr said, per Bay Area News Group's Logan Murdock. "We have a lot of guys that do certain things really well but they're all very different from one another."
JaVale McGee knows all about the number-crunch. He started all five games and averaged 16.3 minutes last round. After logging just six minutes in the semifinals opener, he didn't get off the bench in Game 2. Neither did Jordan Bell (who made 13 starts this season) nor Quinn Cook (20-plus minutes in half of Golden State's first six playoff contests).
Come Game 3, it's possible Nick Young is the next to be squeezed out. Despite making consecutive starts, his rotation spot appears in jeopardy. He's shooting just 31.3 percent for the postseason, and he's dragging down the Dubs each time he plays. In this series, Golden State is minus-18 in his 32 minutes and plus-45 during the 64 minutes he hasn't played.
These openings do create opportunities for others, and Kevon Looney has taken full advantage. The same player who was getting healthy scratches earlier this season is now fifth on the team in total playoff minutes.
An unrestricted free agent this summer, Looney is boosting his bank account with disciplined defense on Davis and active rebounding.
4. Pelicans' Pace Is Perfect for the Dubs
The Pelicans play at two speeds under head coach Alvin Gentry—fast and faster.
This is the perfect style for the Pelicans. It maximizes Davis' chances in the open court, lets Jrue Holiday attack with a full head of steam, allows their shooters to slip through the cracks of a scrambling defense and gives Rajon Rondo optimal spacing to work with.
There's only one catch—the Dubs play the exact same style.
"This team is kind of like playing ourselves," Klay Thompson said, per ESPN's Chris Haynes.
But Golden State is better built for this up-and-down game.
The Warriors had the NBA's highest three-point percentage (39.1) and third-most efficient bench (plus-6.7). The Pelicans only tied for 13th in perimeter shooting (36.2) and 15th in reserve net rating (minus-0.6). That's why Golden State has converted more threes (24 to 21) at a higher percentage (35.8 to 33.9) this series, plus squeezed more minutes (35 to 26) and better efficiency (plus-17.1 to minus-13.7) from its bench.
3. Draymond Green Running Away with Series MVP
If #PlayoffDraymond isn't already a thing, it might have to be after this series.
Green has been sensational. The 6'7" forward-center is one board behind the 6'11" Davis for the series lead on the glass.
Green is also a major reason why Davis is shooting just 47.7 percent, more than six points lower than his regular-season mark (54.3). Oh, and he is tied for the series assists lead with Rondo, a 6'1" point guard Green has also defended one-on-one.
He triple-doubled in the opener with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. He finished one board shy of matching the feat in Game 2, although he upped his scoring (20), field-goal shooting (63.6 from 55.6) and assists (12) while lowering his turnovers (from three to one) despite playing 10 additional minutes.
"Draymond has been phenomenal throughout the playoffs," Kerr said, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater. "He's been saving himself for the playoffs."
Green wasn't always himself this season, finishing a good-but-not-elite 22nd in defensive real plus-minus and producing his fewest win shares in four years. But this is what he's capable of when fully engaged—defensive activity that makes an impact so great it rivals Curry's influence on the offensive end.
If semifinal MVP awards were actually dispersed, Green would be sitting pretty as the odds-on favorite.
2. Stephen Curry Is Back (But Fingers Are Crossed)
Curry is immune to rust.
At least, the two-time MVP made it seem that way with 28 points (on 15 shots) and a game-high plus-26 during his 27 minutes of work after a five-week layoff with a Grade 2 MCL sprain.
But his comeback resonates far beyond one-game heroics. Golden State's success is so closely tied to his effectiveness—during the season, this offense fared 14.3 points better per 100 possessions with than without—that no one is breathing easy just yet.
"I kind of expected tonight," Curry's long-time personal trainer Brandon Payne texted Bleacher Report's Tom Haberstroh after Game 2. "Tomorrow is what I'm not sure about."
The Dubs have been down this road before with Curry. A different, less severe MCL sprain derailed their 73-win campaign during the 2016 Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He shot just 40.3 percent in that series, 7.4 percentage points below his career average.
So, as much as it appears the Chef is cooking like normal, sustainability will be key in what transpires next.
If Curry can be anything close to normal, the Warriors could make this another short series and again go marching into the deepest depths of postseason play. But if the knee limits his lateral mobility and saps his strengths as an on- and off-ball sharpshooter, Golden State's championship path could be as treacherous as ever.
1. New Orleans Has No Margin for Error
The Warriors aren't fair.
If not for a flukey and unprecedented cap spike in 2016, this roster never materializes. The collective bargaining agreement isn't supposed to allow four prime All-Stars to all collect major coin on the same payroll.
But here we are.
That's why the degree of difficulty to dethrone the Dubs feels impossibly high. They've lost one playoff series—capped by a four-point defeat in Game 7—since 2015. All but four of their last 13 postseason series have ended in sweeps or five-game victories.
That's the juggernaut New Orleans is up against. And it showed in Game 2, as the Warriors prevailed despite Thompson shooting 4-of-20, Durant going 2-of-7 from distance and four Pelicans starters scoring 18-plus points.
"The only starpower New Orleans has is controlled by Davis," The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy wrote after Game 1. "But the Warriors can multiply that by four. If Holiday can't play up to his potential, the Pelicans could easily wind up on the wrong end of a sweep."
But Holiday bounced back in Game 2 (from 11 points on 28.6 percent shooting to 24 on 45.8), Nikola Mirotic did the same (from nine on 33.3 to 18 on 43.8), and it still wasn't enough.
The Pelicans could play a near-perfect game, and it wouldn't matter if the Warriors bring their best. That's the daunting task for any challenger when the title road runs through the Bay Area.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.