“In The Scope With Joshua M. Hicks” is a weekly column from the Managing Editor of WARR
Firmly established as a dynasty entering the 2017-18 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors have been favorites to repeat as champions since the first tip in October.
GSW’s status hasn’t changed even in the face of some of their worst performances of the coach Steve Kerr era, or in the face of a series of injuries, none more serious than the extended time they’ve played without their leader, Steph Curry, who has yet to play his first playoff minute.
Yes, the Warriors are still top favorites to go at least to the Western Conference Finals and potentially the Finals, but tonight they may be beginning what could be the team’s toughest postseason challenge outside of any of their Finals clashes with Cleveland — holding back a very game New Orleans Pelicans team in the conference semifinals.
Kerr has been outspoken about Curry’s injury, and even though he has made progress, it is not guaranteed that he will be able to play in the second round, which begins in Oakland this evening (9:30 pm CT, TNT).
Without Steph, the Warriors are a totally different team offensively. Without Steph, the road to the Western Conference inals gets that more challenging.
Curry keeps defenses on their heels, stretching them with his unlimited shooting range and ability to penetrate the defense when pressured. The team uses those skill-sets to open the floor and create opportunities for Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, making their lives easier to get good quality looks and their offense very efficient. Without Curry, the team’s offense can become stagnant and reliant on one on one isolation plays, a more predictable offense that their current No. 1 option, Durant, wasn’t able to use to maximize wins during his days in Oklahoma City.
Although Durant, who is currently averaging 28 points and nine rebounds while shooting 48 percent from the field, is the best offensive scorer and one of the top isolation players in the league, isolation at times takes away from the efficient ball movement that the team is known for. Thompson, who is averaging 23 points and 52 percent front both the field and the three so far in the playoffs, and Durant are still the leaders and top two options in scoring the ball, but the offensive impact disinegrates when Curry is not on the floor. This can work in favor of the Pelicans’ strong, physical and aggressive defensive mindset.
Defensively, the Warriors will have their hands full guarding this new look Pelicans team. The Pelicans have shown that this team is not like the teams of old, playing with much more maturity, confidence and discipline on both ends of the floor. Behind the leadership of coach Alvin Gentry, a former GSW assistant, and chemistry of Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo, the Pelicans shocked the league by completely outclassing the third-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round in a four-game sweep, giving New Orleans more immediate momentum than any other Western Conference team entering Round 2.
AD is a nightmare match-up offensively, his versatility as a stretch 6’11 power forward has always been his calling card and his playoff stats (33 points, 12 rebounds a game) show a willingness to perform under pressure that makes him a tough cover for anyone. It does not help Pelicans opponents when Jrue Holiday and Rondo are stepping up their play on both ends of the floor.
Holiday has been an electrifying force offensively, averaging 27 points along with six assists and four rebounds on 57 percent shooting from the field so far in these playoffs and showing why he is in the conversation as one of the elite two-way players in the Western Conference.
Playoff Rondo continues to be in full effective similar to his days in Boston, being an aggressive perimeter defender, controlling the tempo of the game and averaging 11 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds in the process. The Pelicans’ X-factor in stretch forward Nikola Mirotic is contributing 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 46 percent from three and the bench is averaging 29 points a game.
The Warriors will win the series, especially if Steph’s chances of returning increase and he is able to play in the series, but the Warriors will have a lot on their plate to handle with the Pelicans coming into town.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Chicago-based sports writer and broadcaster, follow him on Twitter @jhicks042; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio