The Warriors mercifully finished off the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, finishing a five-game series with a gritty effort to overcome some late-game struggles. Their second-round opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, were watching from their couches after cooking the Portland Trail Blazers like a pot of gumbo. Such is life when the Dubs are forced to cook without Curry.
Unfortunately, with Steph’s status very much in question for Saturday’s series starter, they may be forced to continue doing so.
One of the keys to New Orleans’ first-round brilliance was tenacious and aggressive defense, keyed by guards Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo and anchored by All-Star forward Anthony Davis. They regularly trapped Portland’s ball-handlers, mostly their two scoring guards, while The Brow protected the basket, successfully forcing the Al Farouq-Aminus and Mo Harklesses of the world into what ultimately are low-percentage shots for them. Against the Curry-less Dubs, that probably means more open looks for guys like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
When the Pelicans beat the Warriors earlier this month at Oracle, Green and Iguodala shot a combined 1-for-10 from deep. Even if that’s an extreme case, I think we can agree Golden State prefers the bulk of their attempts to come from Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
The tenacity of the Pelicans’ perimeter players also kept a lot of the Blazers’ action on the outside. Durant, who has struggled from three so far in the playoffs, said in his postgame presser on Tuesday that he’d “be more concerned if my mid-range wasn’t working … I can easily just stop taking threes and shoot when I’m open.”
Generally, this is true: KD is one of the most incredible offensive players of all time, with a wildly diverse array of options to attack an opponent. But things get tougher inside the three-point line with Davis on the floor. Plus, with Curry in street clothes, Durant may not have the luxury of just waiting until he’s “open.”
The Pelicans also represent the rare NBA squad that may actually have the advantage over the Dubs with small-ball lineups. New Orleans’ starting lineup basically has three guards with the 6-foot-4 E’Twaun Moore at the 3. Then, you get Nikola Mirotic (essentially a shooting guard himself, though his size allows him to play the 4-5 in small lineups, and his defense against bigs has been admirable) and The Brow (a supersized superstar who defies definition).
If the Warriors counter that down the stretch with a non-Curry version of the “Death Lineup,” with either Quinn Cook or Shaun Livingston standing in, they have a handful of matchup issues. Even a Defensive Player of the Year is going to have his hands full with Davis, if Draymond does draw that matchup, and double-teaming the big fella will leave open shots to Mirotic, Rondo and old Dubs pal Ian Clark.
If the Warriors add a big to that lineup instead, they may have even bigger issues. There’s simply no way David West can keep up with anybody in that New Orleans five. JaVale McGee too often loses track of his defensive assignment. And asking for more from Kevon Looney, arguably one of the best defensive options against Davis, is a gamble at best.
The other side of the ball may be a bigger concern in Steph’s absence: Davis is a defensive force, and the three guards are all tough, intense defenders who pickpocketed a talented Blazers backcourt with ease and regularity. The Pelicans’ ability to switch on defense is near-Warriors level with Holiday, Rondo and Moore all able to defend bigger players.
Without Curry, the Warriors have seen their offense stagnate into iso-ball too frequently, and they miss his ballhandling and command of the offense in noticeable ways. Durant and Green turned it over a combined 11 times in their last meeting, including Rondo’s theft of KD to seal the Pelicans’ victory.
On the bright side, the Warriors’ offense is very different than the Blazers. They run far fewer pick-and-rolls — a Portland strength that New Orleans turned into a weakness. That said, head coach Alvin Gentry knows the Golden State offense well, and Rondo’s penchant for rabid film study suggests he’ll be just as equipped to deploy his considerable strategic acumen.
As impressive as Davis and Co. were against Portland, any NBA observer would gladly take a two-MVP, four-All-Star starting lineup over the Pelicans’ group any time. With Playoff Iguodala back on the bench, the Golden State reserves are considerably better than the triumvirate that takes up virtually all of New Orleans’ non-starter minutes.
Curry quite obviously tips the metaphorical scales far more than his 190 pounds tip literal ones. The Warriors are 24-2 against New Orleans since the start of the 2012-13 season; they had won 10 straight regular season games (plus their 2015 playoff sweep) over the Pelicans before the latest loss, which Curry missed.
Still, forecasting the Pelicans matchup drives home the bigger point: The Warriors need a mostly healthy and fully capable Curry to get out of the Western Conference. Rushing him back to play New Orleans at the cost of his health for a potential Rockets or Jazz matchup would be pointless at best.
As far as the timetable of a Curry comeback, the Warriors are being typically coy. On Sunday, Steve Kerr said the two-time MVP is “not going to play any time soon,” then issued an apparently contradictory update on Tuesday night, saying Curry is “day-to-day.” The latter statement seems to open the door to a Saturday return, but the smart money is on a slow-and-steady approach.
The Warriors are the favorite here, with or without Curry. But the difference is a fundamental talent mismatch versus a knock-down, drag-out fistfight. Sans Steph, you have a matchup where Iguodala has to outplay Playoff Rondo. Where Thompson has to outplay Holiday at the peak of his powers. Where Green’s defensive impact must neutralize Mirotic’s offense. And where KD’s magic needs to exceed that of AD.
The Warriors are talented and well-coached and make a heck of a meal under any circumstances. But that Curry flavor is irreplaceable.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.