SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick weighs in on the Warriors’ statement win in Game 1, and what the Pelicans will need to do to recover.
If you thought Oracle Arena was loud on Saturday night – and Golden State coach Steve Kerr swears it was as raucous as he’s ever heard – then just wait for tipoff on Tuesday.
That’s when two-time MVP and Warriors fan favorite Steph Curry is expected to take center stage again, returning for the first time since he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain on March 23 in Game 2 against New Orleans in the Western Conference semifinals.
Yet with the Warriors having been so dominant without Curry in Game 1, winning 123-101 while showing the kind of championship swagger that had been missing of late, it’s fair to wonder now that they’re about to get even more reinforcements: Is this series already over? We won’t go that far just yet, but here are three reasons the Pelicans are in serious trouble.
1. DURANT’S DEFENSE IS NO HOLIDAY
Jrue Holiday was coming off a fantastic first-round showing, with the ninth-year guard having averaged 27.8 points, 6.5 assists and four rebounds in the sweep of Portland. His contributions were crucial, as Holiday and Nikola Mirotic (18.3 points, 9.5 rebounds) gave franchise centerpiece Anthony Davis the supporting help he needed to help them advance.
But after muscling through Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner in that series, Holiday now finds himself facing a more formidable defensive foe: Kevin Durant. The Warriors star may be listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s widely considered a seven footer. That length makes it tough for Holiday to find his spots, and Durant’s athleticism and speed means he’s able to keep up all over the floor.
The end result in Game 1? Holiday, who also faced everyone from Andre Iguodala to Kevon Looney to Klay Thompson, had just 11 points (4-of-16 shooting), four rebounds, three assists and a minus-23 rating. As Pelicans beat writer Will Guillory of NOLA.com pointed out, Holiday was just one-of-nine from the field when Durant guarded him.
“Well, Holiday has been really, really good, in that last series and late in the year so he was a priority for us for sure,” Kerr said. “I thought Kevin’s size factored in and Kevin did a great job on him.”
Mirotic was no better, finishing with nine points (3-of-9 shooting) and eight rebounds while facing everyone from Shaun Livingston to Thompson, Looney and Draymond Green.
2. THE PELS’ PACE PROBLEM
Alvin Gentry knows as well as anyone that it’s nearly impossible to beat the Warriors at their own scoring game. After all, the Pelicans coach was Kerr’s lead assistant until he headed for the Big Easy in the summer of 2015.
So while New Orleans’ breakneck style mostly worked during the regular season when they played the league’s fastest pace – 102.73 possessions per game, compared to Golden State’s fifth-place mark of 101.5 – Game 1 was a clear sign that it isn’t likely to work against these Warriors. The game was even faster than normal for both squads, ending with a one-game mark of 105.96 that tested the lungs of all involved.
“Man, it was tiring,” Thompson said after scoring his game-high 27 points. “The Spurs (who the Warriors beat in five games in the first round), they are a little older, so they play a little more methodical. They try to beat us up in the half court and low block. This team is kind of like playing ourselves. It’s like, you make a bucket, you can’t relax. You have to sprint back, find a shooter and they are pushing the tempo. It’s a whole different ballgame.”
But this hoops life is rough for the underdog Pels when you’re facing a Warriors team with the NBA’s greatest collection of offensive talents, and that had the league’s best offensive rating during the season (112.3). Consider this key contrast: The Pelicans were 17th in offensive rating after losing big man DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles injury on Jan. 26, with a mark of 106.8.
3. KLAY AND DRAYMOND
Newsflash: All-Stars, more often than not, will play like All-Stars.
So now that Thompson and Green have found their games in the playoffs, it puts all sorts of pressure on the Pelicans to find an answer. Take out Thompson’s one bad game in the postseason, when he shot just (4-of-16) from the field in a Game 4 loss to San Antonio in the first round, and he’s averaging 25.6 points (on a red-hot 55.9% shooting overall and 52.9% from three-point range) in the other five games. Green, who is averaging 12.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists in the playoffs, has the highest individual net rating of any starter in the postseason (plus-19.6).
“Draymond is going to guard everybody,” Kerr said in discussing Green’s impact. “He started on Davis, but when (Looney) came in to guard Davis, Draymond slid over to (Rajon) Rondo. You know how Draymond is. He wants to be in the fray and he wants to be in the middle of the floor. Middle of the action, I should say. We’re going to put him on people that are going to be in the middle of the action and probably not guys who are spotting up and shooting, so that he can make an impact.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter.