Stephen Curry, who averaged 26.4 points and 6.1 assists despite being limited to 51 games due to a series of injuries, was a spectator in the first round due to a sprained left knee as the reigning NBA champions cruised by the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
The Warriors (58-24), who are trying to win their third NBA title in four years and reach the finals for the fourth consecutive season, barely missed their All-Star guard because fellow All-Stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson shouldered most of the scoring load as they averaged 28.2 and 22.6 points, respectively, versus San Antonio.
Curry, though, went through a full-contact practice Thursday along with his customary shooting drills, and played in a 5-on-5 scrimmage Friday, though coach Steve Kerr did not upgrade him from the questionable status he labeled him with the previous day when he practiced.
“I’m getting there, for sure,” Curry told ESPN after practice. “I’ve done a lot in the last two weeks, especially on my feet moving, getting back to movements that I expect to do in the games and try to build that tolerance and intensity. My knee feels pretty good. I don’t have any pain with doing the things that I’ve been doing.”
Veteran Andre Iguodala manned the point guard position in the first round and averaged 7.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. But he also was part of a strong defensive effort as Golden State limited San Antonio to 96.8 points per game and 29.8 percent shooting in the first round.
New Orleans (48-34) will have had six days off by the time Game 1 tips off after a stunning sweep of Northwest Division champions Portland in the first round. The Pelicans have picked up the tempo of their offense and averaged 114.5 points while shooting 52.1 percent in winning their first playoff series since 2008 and just their second in franchise history.
All-Star center Anthony Davis was a towering presence in the sweep of the Trail Blazers, averaging 33.0 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 57.0 percent in his first postseason appearance since being swept by the Warriors in the first round in 2015.
Jrue Holiday was the outside complement to Davis’ inside game, chipping in 27.8 points and 6.5 assists per game while making 56.8 percent of his shots. Nikola Mirotic provided the perimeter presence, hitting 12 of 26 3-pointers while averaging 18.3 points, and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo had three double-doubles while totaling 11.3 points and 13.3 assists per game.
The Pelicans have won nine straight overall when including the final five games of the regular season.
Three keys to the game
Clark's insider knowledge important for Pelicans - After earning a championship ring as a reserve with the Warriors last season, guard Ian Clark signed a one-year deal with the Pelicans.
Only recently has he been an important factor, delivering on the defensive end as he helped shut down Portland's potent backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum.
Clark averaged 5.8 points and 1.5 assists in the sweep of the Trail Blazers, but his knowledge as an ex-Warrior will be helpful, especially on the defensive end.
"That's what we've been working on the past few days, trying to tell these guys what their tendencies are going to be," Clark told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Coming off pick-and-rolls, coming off pin-downs, the movement that they have. Everybody knows they can shoot, so we've got to make sure we don't give them any looks."
Defense by committee - While everyone waits on Curry, both teams have one elite-level scorer; the Warriors have Durant and the Pelicans have Davis. Please note this space is not disrespecting Thompson, who is one of the league's best shooters.
No one player on each team can guard the other's superstar, so expect both coaches to run multiple players at both Durant and Davis to slow them down. The Pelicans had some success with that in the most recent meeting between the teams, a 126-120 victory at Golden State on April 7 in which even guards Rondo and Holiday took a turn at defending Durant.
On the other side, Davis has been an absolute monster since the All-Star break, and with New Orleans reinventing themselves offensively since losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles injury, the forward has displayed a full arsenal of offensive scoring options, including ranging out to the 3-point line.
Much like the Pelicans will do with Durant, look for the Warriors to send waves of bodies at Davis, with Draymond Green likely to get the lion's share of the matchup.
Matchup to watch
PG Rajon Rondo vs PG Andre Iguodala OR PG Stephen Curry - The true sign of an elite playoff performer is when they have a Twitter hashtag, such as the case with #PlayoffRondo. Rondo has always been one of the best pass-first point guards in the league, and in New Orleans, he finally has an offense worthy of all his entry passes.
It also helps the Pelicans reinvented the wheel offensively, going to a three-guard lineup with Holiday and E'Twaun Moore, coupled with Mirotic's perimeter skills freeing up space for Davis to wreak havoc all over the court.
Rondo, though, is the gyroscope that keeps it all together. After an impressive 3.53 assists-to-turnover ratio in the regular season that ranked sixth in the league, Rondo nudged it higher to 3.79 in New Orleans' first-round sweep, and his 53 total assists trail only John Wall (61), who has played one more game.
Rondo's 7.6 shot attempts per game were a career low, but with three quality scorers around him, he does not have to shoot often. He went 19 for 39 in the four wins and also made three of seven from 3-point range, which if it continues, would be enough to keep Golden State's defense honest.
Iguodala has the size to bother Rondo, and while he likely will not be at 100 percent right away in this series, Curry has the speed to stay in front of Rondo. Both matchups present an intriguing challenge for #PlayoffRondo, who has a six-game playoff winning streak dating back to last year when he led the Chicago Bulls to a 2-0 series lead in the first round against Boston before missing the final four games with a fractured thumb.
New Orleans Pelicans projected starting lineup
PG - Rajon Rondo | SG - Jrue Holiday | C - Anthony Davis | SF - E'Twaun Moore | PF - Nikola Mirotic
Golden State Warriors projected starting lineup
PG - Andre Iguodala | SG - Klay Thompson | C - JaVale McGee | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green
Davis is as close to a lock as you can get for DFS purposes as he has averaged 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 2.1 steals while shooting 53.2 percent and posting nine double-doubles. He created many problems for Golden State this season, recording double-doubles in all three games he played while scoring 30 or more in each contest.
Davis averaged 33.0 points and 14.0 rebounds while shooting 59.7 percent and also had seven blocks and five steals. In the four-game series loss to the Warriors in 2015, he averaged 31.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while shooting 54.0 percent.
After scoring 13 points on five-of-17 shooting in the first meeting this season, Holiday averaged 27.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 52.5 percent. He has totaled 22.7 points and 7.3 assists per game during New Orleans' nine-game winning streak, shooting a torrid 56.8 percent and adding 2.1 steals per contest.
Durant had 41 points in the home loss to the Pelicans earlier this month but averaged 27.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in three games against them this season. This will be the first time Durant has faced New Orleans in the postseason after averaging 26.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in 34 career matchups. He has shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range and 51.3 percent overall versus the Pelicans.
New Orleans turned Curry into a volume shooter in the three games he played against them in 2017/18 as he went 12 of 35 from 3-point range and 25 of 60 overall while averaging 28.7 points and 8.3 assists.
He tormented the Pelicans in that four-game sweep in 2015, totaling 33.8 points and 7.3 assists per game while connecting on 41.7 percent of his attempts (20 for 48) from beyond the arc.
The Warriors are 9.5-point favorites for this conference semifinal opener, with the line moving two points in their direction since its open as bettors appear confident Curry will play in Game 1.
But New Orleans' late-season surge and first-round sweep have them trending for bettors as they have covered in their last five road games and in eight straight against Pacific Division opponents. The Pelicans are also 19-7 against the spread in their last 26 games against Western Conference opponents and 23-9 in their last 32 overall.
New Orleans, though, are 1-4 versus the number in their last five conference semifinal games and 4-13 in their last 17 when playing after at least three days of rest.
Golden State are 20-7 against the spread in their last 27 at Oracle Arena when facing teams with a road winning percentage above .600, but they are also 2-6 against the spread in their last eight home games and 3-12 in their last 15 following a straight up victory.
The over/under has ticked higher 1.5 points to 224, with the over hitting in four of the last five between the teams at Golden State and in eight of their last ten overall meetings. The over has gone 7-2 in New Orleans' last nine games versus Pacific Division teams but just 2-7 in their last nine road games. The under has also come through in each of their last four conference semifinal games.
The over is 5-2 in Golden State's last seven conference semifinal games and 4-1-1 in their last six home games, but the under has hit five times in their last six home games against teams with an above-.500 road record.
It's easy to get excited for this matchup given how business-like the Warriors were in casting the Spurs aside in the first round even without one of their best players. New Orleans are the hot flavor of the moment, and deservedly so after tearing through Portland in the only sweep of the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Yet while people want to jump on the Pelicans' bandwagon after repackaging themselves since Cousins went down, there's a small nagging presence in the back of peoples' minds when they finally look at how these teams lineup and then make the realization, "Wait, the Pelicans are going to try and run with the Warriors?"
On the surface, it sounds folly given the Warriors have now been doing this for four years and know all the difficulties that come with it, while the Pelicans have been doing it for barely three months. The questions about New Orleans do not involve Davis or #PlayoffRondo, but they do center on Holiday and Mirotic.
With Holiday, the question is can he keep this elite level play of going on what is now the biggest stage of his career. Facing Lillard and McCollum is like a warm-up act before trying to deal with Curry and Thompson, and while Clark can spell him, Holiday's defense will impact this series more than his offense.
Regarding Mirotic, he has to make Durant work defensively and be a consistent 3-point threat. He has averaged 15.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in the 34 overall games he has played with the Hornets since being acquired from the Chicago Bulls, but Mirotic has only made 35 percent of his 3-point shots. The Pelicans, though, are 12-2 when he hits at least three from beyond the arc, and in their win over Golden State on April 7, Mirotic drilled six.
Golden State looked every bit the champions they are in disposing of San Antonio, the only reason that series was extended to five games is the championship-caliber pride of the Spurs franchise. The Warriors played their game, saw what the Spurs wanted to do defensively, and then adjusted on the fly in a half-court setting.
Now the floor opens up for them this round with both teams ranked in the top five for tempo, and it is New Orleans who are the higher team as they lead the NBA in possessions per game.
This game will be close as the feeling out process will lead to big momentum swings when each team gets hot. While the Pelicans have a coaching staff intimately familiar with the Warriors style in both Hornets head coach Alvin Gentry and associate head coach Darren Erman, who both served as assistants at Golden State, there is a difference in knowing how to stop the Warriors and executing that gameplan.
Look for Golden State to hold serve, but also to work for it in a 129-119 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT. Tip-off time is 10:30 pm EDT.
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