The NBA playoffs have featured a number of surprises thus far — the Washington Wizards have played the Toronto Raptors in a close contest, the Utah Jazz have thoroughly outmatched the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to overcome the Indiana Pacers. However, the biggest shock of the past week was the way in which the New Orleans Pelicans dominated and demolished the Portland Trail Blazers. After DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending injury, many wrote off the Pelicans as a likely first-round exit. Instead, New Orleans swept Damian Lillard and company in four games, sending the Portland team into freefall. While Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts hopes to retain his job (as of Tuesday night), the Pelicans are moving on to face the Golden State Warriors in the second round. And though the Warriors should be heavy championship favorites, New Orleans could play them tougher than anyone expects.
First of all, the Pelicans have Anthony Davis. The 25-year-old is a top-five player in the league and just completed his best season yet. He averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game — good for a 28.98 PER. Davis will be a special problem for the Warriors by virtue of his size. Golden State cannot stick Draymond Green on Davis all the time like they would have done against other star players because Davis can outmuscle and outleap him to a horrifying extent. Kevin Durant could match up against the big man, but Durant doesn’t like to be hit and jostled down low in the post. Fatigue from all that contact will be an issue because of his skinny frame. That leaves the likes of JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and Kevon Looney to contend with Davis for a solid part of each game. He should be all over the offensive glass and punish the Warriors from there. Davis is averaging 33 points and 11.8 rebounds per playoff game — expect similar production from him going forward.
Jrue Holiday, meanwhile, has turned into a dangerous two-way threat that could neutralize Klay Thompson. Holiday’s star stock has risen with each New Orleans victory, and Game 4 against the Trail Blazers — when he scored 41 points and added eight assists — was his finest performance yet. Holiday is a dynamic scorer who can create his own shot. He spent the early part of his career running point for the Philadelphia 76ers and now can help run the offense from the shooting guard position. Between him and Rajon Rondo, the Pelicans have two lethal ball handlers. And Holiday’s defense might be the best part of his game. He overwhelmed Lillard and C.J. McCollum, forcing them to turn the ball over and take difficult shots.
Rondo has turned into full-blown “Playoff Rondo,” and the results speak for themselves. He averaged 11.3 points, 13.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game in the Portland series, with complete effort on both ends of the floor. His passing ability remains one of the best in the league and his basketball IQ is incredible. Rondo, on several different occasions last series, recognized the exact play Portland was about to run and positioned his teammates accordingly to halt the Trail Blazer offense. If the point guard continues to hit on his three-pointers, New Orleans has a complete, high-level playoff starter.
So, if New Orleans continues to play well, Davis can match Durant’s production, while Holiday can match Thompson’s and Rondo can match Green’s. The role player advantage belongs to New Orleans as well, with Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill making up the supporting cast.
But one name, of course, is missing from that equation: Stephen Curry. If the point guard returns from his knee injury at 100 percent effectiveness, then this series will be over quickly. Curry changes the game for the Warriors. The threat of his three-point shooting spaces the floor, his quick cuts promote ball movement and throw the defense further off balance and his ability to make a shot from anywhere can spark runs at any time. Without Curry, Golden State relies on iso ball with Durant, making life tougher for their shooters. The Warriors are still a great team without Curry, but beatable.
No one knows for sure when Curry will return. Different rumors have set a Curry return for the beginning, middle and end of the second round. It’s the key question of the playoffs because it could mean the difference between a sweep and a competitive six- or seven-game series. Furthermore, we can’t assume Curry will return at complete effectiveness. After all, in 2016, he returned from a more minor meniscus injury with noticeable problems. The Warriors struggled to overcome the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals after a 73-9 regular season.
Of course, the Warriors do have Durant now. But the Pelicans still pose a definite challenge for Golden State. With tough matchups, great ball movement and momentum, New Orleans can play the Warriors close.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.