It sounds trite to count down the number of wins, but it’s a reminder of what’s left. It’s 12. 12 is what’s left. But 12 wouldn’t be possible without four, and the four games the Warriors won against the Pelicans comprised one of the most productive first round series I’ve ever seen from a future champion … provided the Warriors finish the job.
The Warriors showed they can put the pedal to the floor with how they performed in the first quarter of Game 1. They showed they can muddle through a game where nothing really seems to be going right (besides the score, anyway) with their win in Game 2. They pulled off a comeback for the ages in Game 3, which set the stage for Game 4. On Saturday night in the Big Easy, Golden State flexed with their play instead of their celebrations. All the while, the core of this team stood out. Klay Thompson finished this series with three consecutive marvelous games. Draymond Green played 42 minutes in each contest except for Game 3, when he played 40 minutes due to foul trouble.
Green was amazing in this series, both in terms of numbers and overall impact. Every power forward in the league is going to want Green on his team next year. “Oh, don’t listen to the Warriors — he’d be a great point forward for us. He can rebound, run an offense, and most importantly, he’ll never be able to guard me.”
And Stephen Curry … he was better than the young almost-surefire-Hall-of-Fame Pelican at all the crucial moments.
We’re going to look back on this series at some point — maybe a few years down the road, perhaps sooner — and realize that sweeping this Pelicans team was actually a pretty extraordinary feat. The Warriors may have avoided Russell Westbrook, but that put them up against Anthony Davis, and now that we know from Davis himself that his playoff butterflies lasted all of one quarter in Game 1, that’s actually more frightening than facing an angry Westbrook.
Probably more so, since Davis seems to affect shots in the paint from halfcourt.
“I thought tonight was our best effort of the series,” Steve Kerr told reporters after the Warriors swept the Pelicans with a 109-98 victory in Game 4.
“I’m very pleased with the effort and I’m very pleased that I don’t have to see Anthony Davis until November at the earliest.”
Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Norris Cole, Tyreke Evans, Dante Cunningham, Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter … that’s not a terrible supporting cast. Move them to the Eastern Conference and they’re a lock for the semifinals next year. But in the Western Conference they were only good enough to just barely make the playoffs, and they were at the mercy of a Warriors squad that’s figuring out how to become an all-time great team on the fly.
Forget the Coach of the Year award, because it means nothing. George Karl got fired soon after winning one with the Nuggets, in part because Denver lost in the first round to Golden State. NBA psychology is right out there for anyone to witness, more than any of the other major North American sports. Oh, we can assume we know what baseball, football and hockey players are thinking, but we KNOW what basketball players are thinking. It’s the most honest sport, in part because the players and coaches don’t withhold information in quite the same militaristic way, and because we see it all on their faces.
“This team has playoff experience the last two years as an underdog. I think it’s easier as the underdog, you just come out and let it loose. When you’re the favorite it’s a little different feeling,” said Kerr, who might be the only coaching candidate available before this season who’s had this much experience being on a team that’s considered the favorite.
The favorites usually win the NBA title, because the favorites almost always have one or more of the top five best players. Curry is currently the best player if you take everything he possesses — offensive dominance; defensive competence; the ability to excite his own teammates and seize the moment; durability — and compare it with the rest of the field. The Warriors won 67 games and they know the MVP is their guy, a small guy. It has to be a confidence-builder to know that you’re on a team so excellent that a normal-looking human can rise above the rest of the league for one full season, because he helps all of you and you help him.
But that’s too much about the individual, although that’s impossible to avoid when Curry goes off for 39/9/8 and snuffs what last bit of life remained in those poor Pelicans in the fourth quarter. This Warriors team is in grand shape because they took every last punch from New Orleans and came back with something harder. They swept New Orleans, but they were humbled while their confidence was boosted ten-fold.
That’s NBA basketball. It’s the same for superstar players as championship teams — the confidence must be there when things go poorly, because you’re never truly out of it. And things went poorly a fair number of times over the past eight days for Golden State. Luckily, nothing (besides some ankle pain for Ironman Draymond) went poorly on the injury front. These first four games produced tests the Warriors knew they could pass because they were so damned good during the regular season, but it still means a lot to pass them during the playoffs.
We all remember the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who lost to the Warriors and the best player in the world for a month-long stretch, Baron Davis (sounds weird, but it was true). The Mavs won 67 regular season games before falling 4-2 to the “We Believe” squad. Hey, it happens. The Mavericks weren’t ready. They needed seasoning and a different head coach, or at least one who realized that Nelly knew exactly what they were doing.
The Warriors are ready. It’s been obvious for several weeks — this is the best team in the world. They defend better than anyone and they have the best player. Throw in a coach who’s a mix of Pop and Phil who has Alvin Gentry drawing up plays and Yoda as his defensive coordinator, a forward who’s starting to look like a combination of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (but more Pippen lately, if you ignore the 12.8 rpg craziness we saw in the first round) in Green, a true center whose default setting is “I kind of hate you,” and several unique scoring threats, and they’re prepared for anything. They just hadn’t faced everything. They still haven’t, but the Pelicans provided a great service in this series — all the way through the fourth quarter of Game 4, when they tried to replicate what the Warriors did to them in Game 3.
There are three MVP candidates left: Curry, James Harden and LeBron James. The Spurs are the team no one wants to face, although the Grizzlies are looking feisty in their first round series against the Blazers. It’s not going to be easy for the Warriors, but it never is. That’s why it was a good thing for them that Russell Westbrook didn’t will a broken, no-defense squad into the first round to face Golden State. Curry, Draymond, Klay, Bogut and the rest had to fight past a young, talented Pelicans team that’s going to give other teams (quite possibly the Warriors) trouble in future years. That they treated New Orleans like most eventual champions treat their first round opponents — with a sweep — bodes well for what’s to come.