The Golden State Warriors’ quest for a second straight NBA championship won’t pass through the bumpy roads of New Orleans this year.
The Pelicans, as you know, missed out on the playoffs in what was a brutal season, seemingly never recovering from that 3-point dagger that Stephen Curry drained over the outstretched arms of Tyreke Evans and Anthony Davis in Game 3 of the playoffs’ first round last season.
Since then, it has been smooth sailing for the Warriors, who begin the playoffs Saturday as the hottest team in NBA regular-season history. Their 73-9 record surpassed the Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 mark from 20 years ago.
But those 73 wins won’t mean a thing if the Warriors don’t get 16 more.
One thing is for sure: The path won’t be nearly as smooth for the Warriors this time.
Last year, the Warriors’ playoff run included a sweep of the Pelicans followed by a win over the Grizzlies in six games. They then caught a break, facing Houston in the Western Conference finals after the Rockets upset the Los Angeles Clippers, who had beaten the Spurs in the opening round. They followed that up by facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team hit hard by injuries.
The road this time looks to be a bit more rugged, with the Warriors starting this year’s playoffs against the team (the Rockets) that they played in the conference finals last season.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, an assistant at Golden State last season, said his former team feels it has something to prove after hearing people questioning its path to the title a season ago.
“They still have a chip on their shoulders because last year everybody had the opinion that they didn’t go through the tough teams to get to the finals,” Gentry said. “They have a chip on their shoulders about not being considered a legitimate champion. I have a ring to say we were.”
But will the Warriors get another ring in June?
The playoffs are a 16-team race, but there are only four that have a legitimate shot of dethroning the Warriors. Here’s a quick glance at those teams, from least likely to most likely to do it:
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
A year ago, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had to watch the playoffs from the couch. Injuries sidelined the league’s most dangerous 1-2 punch, and they could only watch as the Pelicans slipped into the eighth spot.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: We’ve seen this script too many times. The Clippers come into the playoffs with high expectations, only to fizzle out at the end.
This year could be different. Chris Paul is playing some of his best ball, and Blake Griffin looks to be healthy after missing 45 games with an injury to his quadriceps and his right hand. On paper — and with Paul playing like he’s capable of playing — the Clippers would make for a dangerous second-round opponent for Golden State.
2. San Antonio Spurs
You could argue that the Spurs have the best chance to knock off the Warriors. But the Spurs’ road just to get to the Warriors will be tough.
They likely would meet Oklahoma City in the second round, a series that could go the full seven games. Golden State beat the Spurs three of four times this season and gave the Spurs their only home loss.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs have LeBron James, who last year tried to single-handedly will his team to the title. It took six games for the Warriors to win against a Cleveland team that was missing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Cleveland should be healthy and plenty rested having to navigate through the much weaker Eastern Conference, although the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors could push them some.
But will any of them be able to beat the Warriors? Gentry doesn’t think so.
“Somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to beat them at Oracle (Arena),” Gentry said. “That’ll be tough to do, and you have to beat them four times and that will be difficult. I think they are the odds-on favorite.”
I agree, but it’ll be a whole lot tougher this time.
Golden State over the Cavs in seven.