We all know the biggest unknown hanging over the second-round playoff series between New Orleans and Golden State: Stephen Curry. Does he return Saturday night when Game 1 tips off — he left that door open Thursday — or will it be later in the series, like Game 3 or 5? When he does, how healthy is he? Is Curry 100 percent, or more like 85 percent? We all know the bottom line, the Warriors offense becomes unguardable and the team is 15 points per 100 possessions better when Curry is on the court, and at whatever level he changes the series upon his return.
But that is far from the Pelicans’ only challenge in this series.
The other big question: Who guards Kevin Durant?
The most obvious answer here is Anthony Davis, who is an All-Defensive team level big man with the length and quickness to make this a legit matchup. Davis has the skills make life difficult for Durant, how many other people can you say that about?
However, it’s not tenable for the Pelicans to leave AD on Durant for most of the game for two reasons. One, Durant is very good at drawing fouls when he attacks with the ball, and the Pelicans cannot afford to risk Davis in foul trouble, he’s too vital on both ends. The other problem, Durant will pull Davis out to the arc to cover him, leaving Nikola Mirotic as the primary rim defender — and that means a string of lay-ups and dunks off drives and back cuts by the Warriors.
Expect Davis to be on Durant for critical stretches — say the final few possessions of a close game — but not for the entire game.
If not Davis, then who? In the last meeting between these teams (April 7, a Pelicans win), coach Alvin Gentry went with his second best defender, guard Jrue Holiday. Throughout the season and through the first round of the playoffs, Holiday has played at an All-Defensive Team level (he was on my second team ballot). The problem is he’s 6’4” and gives up five to eight inches to Durant (official listed hight vs. reality), and in that April meeting Durant had 41 points. KD just created a little space and shot unbothered over the top of Holiday all game long. Plus, Holiday needs to spend time on Klay Thompson — and Curry, whenever he returns — or the Pelicans risk the Golden State guards beating them.
If not Holiday or Davis, that leaves a buffet of unappealing choices for Gentry. Darius Miller likely will get time, and he’s at least tall (a 6’8” forward), the same is true of Solomon Hill (6’7″). However, neither are great defenders. The Pelicans often play E’Twaun Moore at the three, but that’s a recipe for disaster on Durant. Gentry has few good options on the table here.
The flip side of this equation is a problem for the Warriors: Who guards Anthony Davis?
Since DeMarcus Cousins went down Davis has played at an MVP level and that continued against Portland in the first round, when he averaged 33 points per game with a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 64.9. He’s not fair. And he’s going to get his against Golden State.
The difference is the Warriors have bodies — and with that, a lot of fouls — to throw at Davis. Draymond Green will likely start on Davis and get the majority of the minutes, using his physicality and length to get under Davis’ skin (or at least Green will try to, Davis is pretty much unflappable). After Green, expect Durant to get time on Davis — remember what a good job KD did on LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals. When focused, Durant is a good defender, and he spent time guarding Davis (and doing it relatively well) in that April matchup. After that expect Kevon Looney and JaVale McGee to both get some spot time on Davis — and those two will be asked to be physical, use their fouls, and wear Davis down. That’s the ultimate goal, to wear on Davis and make him work hard for everything.
There are other fascinating matchups to watch in this series.
Holiday vs. Thompson is right at the top of the list. During the Pelicans’ sweep of the Blazers, Gentry was touting Holiday as the third best two-way player in the game, behind LeBron and Kawhi Leonard. Thompson has a place in that conversation as well — one of the game’s best shooters and he’s the guy who gets matched up on the opposition’s best guard night in and night out. These two are going to be matched up on each other and make each other work for their buckets. Holiday was on fire in the last series — he had 41 points on 23 shots in the close out game as a force for the series — while Thompson “quietly” shot better than 50 percent from three against the Spurs. This matchup isn’t going to decide the series, but it’s going to be fun.
If the Pelicans are going to put a real scare into the Warriors, they will need monster series from Mirotic — spacing the floor and drilling threes — and “playoff” Rajon Rondo. Those are the X-factors who, if they are having big games, will force the Warriors into adjustments they don’t want. Those two were phenomenal last series, but this is a different level of competition.
Especially once Stephen Curry returns.