OAKLAND, CALIF. — Basketball was suspenseful at Oracle Arena on Saturday for only about 10 minutes, when all eyes in the building were fixated on the floor, absorbed every shot and all the action before folks finally exhaled, thrilled with the outcome.
But enough about Steph Curry’s closely-inspected pre-game warmup drills.
The second-round playoff opener against the Pelicans held everyone's attention for roughly the same length of time. The once-bored Warriors, who are woke now, ran Anthony Davis and friends off the floor comfortably before halftime.
As they await the return of Curry, and Tuesday for Game 2 looks likely for that, the Warriors straight-up clowned New Orleans almost from the start, dropping threes, making stops, zipping downcourt on fast breaks and essentially throwing themselves an Oaktown version of Mardi Gras.
In a late second-quarter frolic that especially caused the sellout crowd to sway, Draymond Green tossed a lob to Kevin Durant for a dunk and Klay Thompson drilled a three-point bomb from the corner, where he was immediately groped by the frolicking Warriors’ bench. The Warriors broke for 41 points in that quarter; in the second and third quarters combined, New Orleans scored just 40. Party on.
“It was probably the loudest I’ve heard Oracle all year,” said Kerr. “It was kind of a weird regular season but the playoffs are here and our guys feel that, our fans feel that and the second quarter reflected what’s at stake and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It was Warriors 123, shell-shocked Pelicans 101, and yes, there’s no guarantee the rest of the series will be a Big Easy for the defending champions. This is the playoffs; stuff happens, scripts flip. That said, they will get a two-time MVP, and a restless one at that, back in the lineup sooner rather than later. So this is looking rather promising for the Warriors and gloomy for the Pelicans, much less the rest of the remaining NBA playoff field.
Even before Curry went through his customary dribble and shoot routine, where he looked sharp, Kerr had already decided to keep the point guard on ice for at least another 72 hours. Kerr explained that Curry has had limited scrimmaging time since healing from an MCL knee sprain on March 23, and wanted to play it safe. In Kerr’s words, the coach was “protecting Steph from himself.”
Kerr said Curry didn’t take the news well, but this was no negotiation.
“When you have been out five weeks and you want to play in the playoffs, I don’t think one scrimmage is enough, even though he wanted to play and pleaded his case,” Kerr explained. “I just think going through the next few days and making sure he is feeling good and holding up well is the right approach.”
The stakes, obviously, are steep, too much to roll the dice in the second round, no disrespect to the Pelicans. Curry’s body has proven fragile this season, with ankle and knee injuries over the last four months sending a jolt through the organization. None of his ailments were serious or needed surgery; still, the Warriors rightly were leaving nothing to chance, especially since nothing major was at stake.
That changes now. Davis and the Pelicans, having swept through the first round, have Golden State’s attention. Also, assuming a Rockets-Warriors conference final in a few weeks, Curry will need to shake the rust for what would be an epic series on paper.
“He looks great in practice, looks great in workouts,” said Durant. “It’s exciting for him to get back in a place he enjoys the most, which is playing ball. He loves the game just as much as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
What’s most important, and impressive, is how the Warriors decided to ramp it up before Curry’s return. The energy, intensity and sense of urgency was evident against the Pelicans and it turned Game 1 into a rout, and that combination wasn’t always evident in a season where the Warriors pressed the snooze button following the All-Star break.
Their defense against the Pelicans was worry-free from the second quarter onward. Green held Davis to just two points in the second quarter when the game changed; Green finished with a triple double: 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists which was perhaps his best game of the season, all things considered.
“Once our defense took a stand that’s when the game turned in our favor,” said Green. “If we can push the tempo and get stuff in transition, that’s big for us and obviously that starts with stops.”
The Warriors had only one turnover and held the Pelicans to 30 percent shooting in the second quarter, which fueled Golden State’s transition game. Durant and Thompson were straight fire with the jumper and they combined for 53 points in what amounted to three quarters worth of sweat. And that was a wrap.
“That quarter was unacceptable,” Rajon Rondo said.
In some ways this result was understandable; the Pelicans are new to this; Davis is playing in the second round for the first time in his great career, and only Rondo brings championship chops.
About the Warriors, Gentry said: “They’ve done it before, and that’s why I say you’ve got to be very disciplined in what you do with these guys. If you make a mistake against them, they make you pay. They are very smart.”
Kerr used a smallish starting lineup without a natural center, sticking Green in the post, keeping JaVale McGee on the bench and going with a combination of Nick Young and Shaun Livingston in the swing spots. This allowed the Warriors to pace with the Pelicans, who ran the Blazers out of the first round.
Yet in the superstar competition, the Pelicans are at a disadvantage, a margin that will only swell the next game. Therefore, did New Orleans miss out on its best opportunity to grab a game, while the Warriors were short a star?
Jrue Holiday realizes the problems and challenges that a Curry-fortified team will pose for the Pelicans. He did the math.
“You have to key on him as well as KD and Klay,” said the Pelicans guard. “He’s obviously another element of their team.”
At the same time, Thompson believes the Warriors need to chill on any urge to assume all will be well once the team is whole again.
“We played well without Steph,” he said. “It hasn’t been as easy as it looks but we adjusted without him. Even if he does come back, it’s a natural human emotion to be relaxed because we have so much coming back. That will be a test to not depend on Steph to save the day. We have playmakers all around. Just do this together. He’s going to give us a huge boost but we can’t relax.”
With the help of trusty Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, who has the enviable duty of being the official and exclusive workout partner for one of the greatest shooters in league history, Curry hit jumper after jumper as the doors opened at Oracle. As usual, the routine drew a sizable group of onlookers from the stands, but this one seemed more important than others.
Folks wanted and needed to know: Is Curry, after a month off, still splash-ready? Warm-ups can only tell so much. Yet the concentration, the rapid-fire dribble, the quick catch-and-shoot and the aim appeared pure.
Seemingly everyone is awaiting the return of Curry except those who stand to suffer because of it.
“I’m more excited as his brother that he’s out there,” said Durant. “He gets to play basketball, something that he loves to do. We’ll see what happens next game.”
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