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2018 NBA Playoffs: Stephen Curry on verge of return for Golden State Warriors but New Orleans Pelicans offense too overlooked in second round matchup

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A quick primer that points to the idea this series should be a closer battle than many think.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers and on a current nine-game winning streak, the New Orleans Pelicans will start play in the second round against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday evening.

Just a few days ago, the idea of the Pelicans advancing to the Western Conference Finals seemed a realistic possibility, but yesterday’s news probably changed the calculus of the series. Stephen Curry was upgraded to questionable after going through the entirety of the Warriors practice on Thursday, and he sounds likely to play in Game 1, pending a positive reaction to all that movement and running.

In case you’re not aware, Curry is very important to the Warriors fast and potent attack. With him, Golden State posted a 41-10 record in the regular season; without, they were an anemic 17-14 — although this mark includes multiple games in which at least one of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green also missed action.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the Warriors handled the Spurs rather easily in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, but their offense lacked that special gear. The Warriors knocked down just 33.6% of their three-point attempts (39.1% in regular season) and averaged 14.8 fast break points (19.3 FBPS in regular season) against San Antonio. Curry should pay immediate dividends for an offense that has been averaging a rather pedestrian 105.6 points per game in these playoffs. For starters, the Warriors averaged nearly seven more possessions a game with him on the floor than off during the regular season.

Despite the innumerable positives on the scoring side of things, I feel many are overlooking the fact that Curry’s return should not be a positive for the Golden State’s defense. With him on the court, the Warriors defense gave up an average of 105.7 points per game in the regular season. When he sat, opponent scoring dropped to 103.1 points per game. While he’s a savant on offense, he’s no Andre Iguodala defensively.

Even the smallest negative change could have a profound effect in this series because the New Orleans Pelicans offense has also resembled a juggernaut since the start of the team’s 10-game winning back in February. Once they found their groove after DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the year, New Orleans averaged 114.7 points over the final 28 games of the regular season. (Only the Denver Nuggets averaged more points during this time frame.) Perhaps more importantly, New Orleans is averaging a league-best 114.5 points in the playoffs — an impressive feat considering it was compiled versus a Portland top-10 defense that gave 110% effort in their short playoff stint.

While very little should be taken from the four regular season matchups between the Pelicans and Warriors — these playoff rosters had different important personnel active/inactive earlier in the year, there are several takeaways to note. First, New Orleans’ offense had the most success in the regular season of getting good looks against Golden State.

Also, the final meeting which resulted in a 126-120 New Orleans victory is somewhat useful because only Steph was missing in action. Would his presence have mattered much in the outcome? The Warriors lost that game despite shooting 54.4% from the field and 45.5% from three-point range. On the season, Golden State lost just six times in 47 tries when they topped a 50% field goal percentage and eight times in 46 tries when shooting 37.5% from three-point range or better.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Before writing off that impressive Pelicans win inside Oracle to some fluke, realize New Orleans didn’t rely on disgustingly good performances from deep (40.7%) or in transition (13 FBPS). Rather, they abused the Warriors inside the paint (62 PITP) — a staple of their high-scoring ways since roughly the Nikola Mirotic era began. All five players in the Pelicans starting lineup are capable of scoring from all over the floor, but their collective ability to get into the lane and cause havoc is primarily responsible for the dismantling of opposing defenses.

Although I highlighted it back in late March and then before the playoff series against the Trail Blazers began, the starting lineup of Rondo-Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Davis is worthy of yet another mention. In 204 regular season minutes, the unit posted a +16.8 Net Rating, and through four games of the playoffs, they’ve dropped an eye-opening +30.1 Net Rating. They have been amazingly effective since first coming together!

  • Anthony Davis has continued his career habit of torching all length of sized bodies from all over the court, but it’s important to note he’s fully embraced his role as the team’s starting center and his effort has definitely displayed that promised Russell Westbrook mentality.
  • Rajon Rondo is back to his playoff ways, finding teammates for easy looks while keeping defenses honest with his well-timed drives.
  • Nikola Mirotic is as hot as the sun shooting the basketball, but if you’re not paying attention, he’ll burn you on some kind of cut or hit the offensive glass to keep a possession alive.
  • Is there a more versatile fourth scorer in starting lineups than E’Twaun Moore?
  • And, of course, we could write hundreds of words about Jrue Holiday, but I think Zach Lowe captured the shooting guard’s brilliance witnessed against Portland well with a surprisingly apt analogy to G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan.

Look, New Orleans could very well come out a little flat after a week-long hiatus from competitive action against opponents, suffer one or two back-breaking losses due to apparent disadvantages among the reserve units, or simply be overwhelmed by a Golden State squad that smells another a ring ceremony. The Warriors were always going to be the favorites in this Western Conference semifinals, but there’s enough evidence pointing to the fact that the Pelicans should perform well against the world champs — better than most believe. Even if Steph supplies a lot of cooking in every game.