With every vicious Anthony Davis dunk or silky smooth Jrue Holiday pull-up jumper, the thought had to creep into your head. Could this New Orleans Pelicans team, which just wiped the floor with the Trail Blazers, actually give the Warriors a run for their money?
What the Pelicans have done since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles at the end of January has been nothing short of remarkable. Since the Pelicans fell to 28-26 on Feb. 9 and many counted them entirely out of playoff consideration, all they've done is go 22-8, including a thoroughly dominating sweep of the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers.
It's not official yet, but we're just going to assume that the Pelicans will face Golden State in the next round. While it's one thing to look great against the Blazers -- it's quite another to compete with the two-time champion Warriors.
Why the Pelicans have a chance
Look, nobody's favoring the Pelicans in this series, but they do have a slight edge on many of the other teams in the NBA in this respect: They put the ball in the basket.
You listen to coach after coach after coach talk about how you absolutely must score in order to beat the Warriors. Great defense will only get you so far against a team this explosive, and the Spurs have found out in the first round that Golden State is always one lightning-quick second-half run away from sending the fans to the exits early.
So the fact that New Orleans consistently gets buckets gives them a chance. Since Feb. 10, the Pelicans have an offensive rating of 108.6, compared to the Warriors' 110. And their offensive rating in four games against the defensively improved Blazers (114.7) is second only to the Warriors in this year's playoffs. They've found the winning formula between the incredible one-on-one ability of Davis and Holiday, the pace-pushing, distributing talents of Rajon Rondo, and a spread-the-floor shooting attack led by Nikola Mirotic. It's quite a different look, as the Warriors got to see in their 126-120 loss to New Orleans toward the end of the regular season.
"That's a completely different team without DeMarcus," Warriors All-Star Draymond Green said after that game. "Different guys are playing with different confidence levels. ... It was definitely good to play a team this close to the playoffs that you could possibly play, especially with the different style that they're playing now."
And it's not just the offense. Going to a smaller, more switchable lineup with Davis at center has allowed the Pelicans to thrive on defense. Holiday has ascended into one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the NBA, and New Orleans improved from 22nd in the league in defensive rating to fifth after the Cousins injury.
So while you can never expect to stop the Warriors offense, the Pelicans have proven that they at least have a shot to contain them.
How the Pelicans could struggle
The Warriors have clearly flipped the proverbial switch, and are playing their best basketball of the season -- yet their biggest trump card has yet to be played.
Stephen Curry is creeping around Oracle Arena like Darth Vader, just waiting for his chance to re-enter the fold as the Warriors seek their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. The most recent update from the Warriors said that he has resumed practice, with modifications, and will be re-evaluated in about a week -- right before a potential matchup with New Orleans would begin. If everything goes right with his rehab, he's expected to play in at least some -- if not all -- of the second round series.
The Warriors have the best offense in the postseason so far against arguably the best defense in the entire playoffs -- and they're playing Andre Iguodala at point guard. If Curry comes back even close to 100 percent, it's scary to imagine what this Golden State offense will look like.
The Pelicans had success against the Blazers by aggressively trapping Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, effectively forcing Portland's role players to try to beat them. As we've seen, that technique doesn't work against the Warriors. Trapping Curry or Kevin Durant will allow them to get the ball to Green at the top of the key, where he can operate with a man advantage -- and we know how that story ends.
Even if Curry misses the entire series, the Warriors have proven that they can win with more defense-oriented lineups. Golden State has a bevy of large bodies to throw at Davis, including JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Kevon Looney and David West -- a revolving door of physical defenders that will take its toll on Davis as the series goes on.
Another issue for the Pelicans is that their new style of play -- Davis surrounded by a bunch of wings -- plays right into the Warriors' hands. Golden State thrives in small-ball situations, and while Green can't stop Davis, he'll make him work while the Warriors have the opportunity to jack up the pace and launch 3-pointers until New Orleans begs for mercy. Teams that have historically had success against the Warriors have pounded the offensive glass, creating second shots and keeping the Warriors from getting out in transition. That's not a strong suit of this iteration of the Pelicans, who were 24th in the league in offensive rebound percentage for the regular season after the Cousins injury.
The Pelicans were certainly the better team in the first round against the Blazers, and their success has been one of the best stories in the league this season. They might just be facing an insurmountable challenge with the defending champion Warriors.