OAKLAND, Calif. -- It was just before 9 p.m. local time Tuesday when the defending champs, after searching for incentive and not always finding any over the last six months, finally announced they are done playing games. It was time to play for something bigger, and soon enough, against someone claiming to be better.
There was Klay Thompson splashing in a 19-foot pullup. Kevin Durant followed with a mid-range jumper. Stephen Curry flipped a finger roll. On a fast break, Curry drove for an apparent layup, then quickly fed Durant for a dunk. Durant hit a 3-pointer. Thompson got a steal. Curry nailed a 3-pointer. A Draymond Green dunk -- and a scream afterward.
That’s how the Golden State Warriors bid farewell to the New Orleans Pelicans, with a second-half bum-rush in a 113-104 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. And that’s how they plan to say hello to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals (aka the People’s Choice Series).
“I think it’ll be entertaining,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “I think people will have a fun time watching that series.”
The Warriors, now woke? It certainly seems that way, feels that way, looks that way. And for their sake, it better be that way. The Rockets, based on the way they seared through the season, are bringing a level of Western Conference heat perhaps unseen by the Warriors in the Steve Kerr era.
The Warriors are evidently aware of what lies ahead in their fourth straight conference finals because all the boxes are checking off -- and just in time. There’s no longer any need to be uninspired. The days and nights of lapses and losing to lesser teams, which happened often following the All-Star break, are almost forgotten. Their concentration, motivation and antennae are all up, along with their most important vital signs.
Curry is feeling it -- as in his jumper and his wind (and not his knee). He played 37 minutes in Game 5, his most in the playoffs and highest total since a Feb. 22 win against the LA Clippers. It serves of evidence that his recovery and conditioning following his MCL sprain are roughly back to normal. Oh, and he was doing Steph things Tuesday, shooting deeper and deepest, dropping in 28 points -- many of which came in a mad rush.
“I think he’s OK,” Kerr said. “I just think he’s back now.”
Curry is encouraged by how his body is responding to increased minutes and the intensity of the playoffs. He said he suspects it will all come together in time for the Rockets series and his matchup with Chris Paul.
“I feel good and I feel confident in what I’m able to do out there,” Curry said. “I continue to get better, continue to get my timing right and continue to get back to normal. Hopefully I won’t look back.”
Green is all over the floor as he became the first in club history to average a triple-double in a playoff series (14.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 10 apg). And, if necessary, that includes the other team’s huddle. Green eavesdropped, uninvited of course, in the Pelicans’ group in the first quarter and caused a stir, as only Draymond can.
His gamesmanship will certainly carry over to some degree in the next round. It’ll be up to the Rockets how they respond to being poked if not provoked.
“I don’t want to call them antics,” Durant said, “just his passion for competing, it shines bright. It’s pretty cool and pretty fun to see.”
Kerr said: “Draymond was amazing the whole series. Obviously he’s such a valuable player for us. The perfect modern NBA player. He can guard anybody, step out and hit threes. This is what the NBA has become and we’re lucky to have him.”
Durant is averaging 28 points and eight rebounds in the playoffs and took up the load in Curry’s absence. His connection with Curry -- and his ability to take over or yield to Curry when the time suits it -- works in his and the Warriors’ favor.
All that talk … you gotta play the game now. That’s all fine and dandy in January. Now they got us, we got them. Got to go out and play. We’ll see who’s better."
Aside from a 4-for-20 showing in Game 3 of this series, Thompson was on target. He took advantage of open looks and gave scoring balance to Curry and Durant, scoring 22 or more in four of the five games. Thompson will get first crack at James Harden, this after coming off a Game 5 in which he held Rajon Rondo to seven points and seven assists (before Rondo suffered a sore groin and sat much of the fourth quarter).
Andre Iguodala left his fingerprints all over the Pelicans, too. He was guarding every position and even playing point guard for the first two games of the series. He’ll be called upon to do much of the same against the Rockets and could also see time against Harden.
“I told Andre if there was a game where you were underpaid, this was it,” Kerr said. “When Andre’s on the floor, it’s like the babysitter’s there and everything is fine.”
There’s also a touch of Quin Cook and Kevon Looney, two bench players who played sparingly the last two postseasons but are now key in Kerr’s rotation.
Reaching the West finals doesn’t get old, they say, but it is becoming routine. The Warriors are 10-2 in these playoffs and used a 25-4 sprint in the third quarter of Game 5 -- a span of only 5 1/2 minutes -- to flip everyone’s attention to the West finals.
“It’s a weird deal because we haven’t played them in so long,” Kerr said. “We know they’re a great team, we know they’re ready and we’ll be ready for them.”
The Rockets took two of the three matchups with the Warriors this season, but none of those games featured both teams at full strength. Houston has home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and made that a priority down the stretch of 2017-18 as starters burned heavy playing time in early April.
Houston re-tooled last summer with beating the Warriors in mind, most vividly by trading for Paul to give Harden a dangerous tag-team partner. Paul scored 41 to fuel the Rockets’ Game 5 elimination of the Utah Jazz in the other West semis. Harden has pole position on for the Kia MVP award. Capela is in the running for the Kia Most Improved Player award. From the front office to the last man on the bench, the Rockets had Golden State on the brain and made no secret of that.
It’s all amusing to the Warriors and especially to Green, who said the Rockets are merely the next team up.
“It don’t matter to us who we play,” he said. “However we got them, we got them. It makes no sense for us to run around saying we want them like they want us. We ain’t running around talking about, ‘Man I can’t wait, we want them bad.’ We have a goal. Whoever’s in the way of that goal, that’s who we get. We want a championship bad. That’s the truth.
“All that talk … you gotta play the game now. That’s all fine and dandy in January. Now they got us, we got them. Got to go out and play. We’ll see who’s better. They have made it know their team is built to beat us. It’s kind of their obsession or whatever. All that stuff is cool. All understandable. It’s time to play.”
Yes, time for Golden State to stop playing games and start playing for championships. First up, the conference title, a familiar flag for them. It’s that time of year again for the Warriors, healthy and inspired. They’re back at the brink, back in their own skin.
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