Having series edges in victories against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets have given the New Orleans Pelicans confidence this season.
They need to draw from that Tuesday night at the Smoothie King Center. Trailing Oklahoma City by a half-game with six left in the season, the Pelicans host the Golden State Warriors (63-14), who have the NBA’s best record and have beaten the Pelicans 10 consecutive times, including seven in New Orleans.
“It’s a big hurdle, and we’ve definitely got to take that challenge,” Pelicans guard Eric Gordon said. “This team really spreads the floor, and they have dynamic shooters. Their bench is one of the best in the NBA, for sure, and they stick together.”
The Pelicans play at Memphis (52-25), third in the West, on Wednesday night in the second game of a back-to-back. New Orleans, which leads 2-1, won the series last year 3-1.
When the Pelicans (41-35) have lost to opponents this season, it is often because of a disparity in 3-point shooting and fast-break points. Golden State leads the NBA in 3-point shooting (39.5 percent) and fast-break points (20.6).
“Transition defense is something we’ve not done well against Golden State,” coach Monty Williams said when asked why the Pelicans have had so much trouble against that team. “They try to put a lot of pressure on you off makes and misses.
“If they can get … one-on-one situations in transition, it opens up so many lanes. And if you have to help, it opens up 3s and offensive rebounds.”
The key culprits, of course, are point guard Stephen Curry, a candidate for Most Valuable Player, and shooting guard Klay Thompson, who set an NBA record with 37 points in a quarter this season. Both were All-Star starters.
Gordon, who will be matched against Curry at the start of the game, said the key is to chase him (263 3-pointers) and Thompson (219) off the line. Gordon noted, however, that Curry’s improvement as a player is due to his driving to the basket better.
But limiting their 3-pointers will be extremely difficult. They are the only teammates in league history to make more than 200 each for three consecutive seasons.
With the fast pace at which the Warriors play, Pelicans backup guards Norris Cole and Toney Douglas likely will have to be effective also if New Orleans is to pull off a victory. Cole and Douglas, both point guards, have made a difference with their aggressive defense, picking up guards full court.
The Cavaliers did a good job of being physical and guarding the 3-point line well against the Warriors in a win in Cleveland.
“You have to be careful not to foul, though,” Cole said. “I just want to be disciplined on him, try to keep him off the foul line, just contest him as much as possible.”
Also important for the Pelicans will be how well they do offensively. The Pelicans average 45.0 points a game in the lane, and that could go a long way in slowing the Warriors.
More important, the Pelicans have to hold on to the ball. Before their recently completed road trip, New Orleans had a spate of games in which it averaged 18 turnovers per game. The Warriors are No. 1 in points off turnovers at 19.7 per game.
“We have to have great offense because it creates transition balance going back on the other end,” Williams said.
Playing great offensively will be easier said than done. The big development this season is that the Warriors not only lead the league in field-goal percentage, they are first in defensively field-goal percentage, the first team since the 1981 Philadelphia 76ers to lead in both. They are 40-0 when holding teams to fewer than 100 points, crushing the previous record of 29-0.
However, they are coming off a 107-92 loss at San Antonio on Sunday that ended their 12-game winning streak overall and 28-game road winning streak. Even though the Warriors have clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, first-year coach Steve Kerr said he won’t rest his starters down the stretch because he wants his team to be sharp going into the postseason.