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NBA playoffs preview: Unseating Warriors will prove tough for Pelicans's Ben Golliver previews the first-round series between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans. 

Matchup: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans

Season series: 3-1, Warriors

Efficiency rankings:

Golden State (Off. Rating: 2, Def. Rating: 1, Net Rating: 1)

New Orleans (Off. Rating: 9, Def. Rating: 22, Net Rating: 15)

The Matchup

This series unavoidably sets up as a David vs. Goliath clash, but there’s a crucial plot twist that is sure to increase the intrigue and watchability: the underdogs are bringing a long-armed 6'10'' monster with an MVP case and a historic Player Efficiency Rating to the fight.

Fresh off completing one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history, Golden State will begin its championship drive with New Orleans and all-world power forward Anthony Davis. The two squads arrived in the postseason on very different timelines: the Warriors clinched their spot on Mar. 16 and cruised to a staggering 11-game lead over the rest of the conference, while the Pelicans needed to beat the Spurs on the final night of the season to claim the West’s final spot. Expectations for these teams stand in stark contrast, too: Golden State is in “title or bust” mode, while New Orleans, judging by its celebrations on Wednesday night, is thrilled to be in the postseason for the first time since 2011.   

There seems to be little doubt that the Warriors—led by MVP favorite Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green—will bring plenty of water to the 22-year-old Davis’s postseason baptism. Golden State has the edge when it comes to offense, defense, talent, depth, coaching, continuity, health and playoff experience, and it boasts a ruthless home-court advantage at Oracle Arena.

The Pelicans’ most obvious advantage, aside from Davis’s singular talent, is a lack of pressure. New Orleans seized on the “Overlooked with nothing to lose” theme during a win over Golden State last week. Davis revealed in a postgame interview that one of the Warriors had said the game, which was meaningless for Golden State in the standings but critical to New Orleans’ playoff hopes, was “going to be a scrimmage.” Although the Warriors later painted the “scrimmage” comment as a joke to a ballboy, Davis and his teammates are using the perceived dismissiveness as motivation. Hey, it can’t hurt to have a rallying cry when you’re squaring off against Goliath.  

The Case For The Warriors

Number one seeds rarely get toppled in the playoffs, and Golden State doesn’t exactly look ripe for the taking. The Warriors have been on a dream ride under first-year coach Steve Kerr, becoming one of just 10 teams in history to win 67 games and one of just eight teams to post a +10 point differential. Importantly, they enter the postseason without any major injury concerns.

Curry is clearly the head of the snake for Golden State, and he averaged 23.5 points and 9.5 assists while shooting 47.1% on threes and posting a 118 offensive rating in four games against New Orleans this season. Those are pretty ridiculous numbers, for a random player in a vacuum, but for Curry they are more or less in line with his season averages. If the Pelicans can’t find a way to slow down Curry, they don’t stand much of a chance.

Indeed, it will be New Orleans’ defense that will be put under the microscope during this series. The Pelicans posted the worst defensive numbers of any West playoff team for the season, and the improvement since the All-Star break has been minimal. One particular area of concern is in the basket area, even though Davis is an elite shot-blocker and Omer Asik is a defense-first center. New Orleans ranked No. 23 in opponent field goal possession in the basket area this season, while Golden State ranks fourth in field goal percentage in the basket area thanks to its pass-happy style, its paint-opening deep shooting range, and its ability to generate easy points in transition.

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As the series unfolds, Pelicans coach Monty Williams will likely be forced to decide whether to stick with big lineups featuring Asik or to downsize to more offensive-minded spread looks. Asik started but played just 18 minutes in New Orleans’ win over Golden State last week, with spread guys like Ryan Anderson and Dante Cunningham getting the call alongside Davis. Of course, Golden State will happily play the spread game with anyone, given Green’s versatility and its deep stable of shooters.

Although there’s no stopping Davis, who averaged 29.5 points and 12.5 rebounds against the Warriors this season, Green and Andrew Bogut are well-equipped to make him work. Expect lots of bumping, pounding, trash talk and mind games. Kerr will feel confident in his team’s ability to handle the physical, attack-minded Tyreke Evans, given the length and size on the perimeter provided by Thompson and Andre Iguodala, and Bogut’s elite rim-protection. Similarly, the Warriors’ ability to go small helps them match up against Anderson, a prototypical stretch-four. On paper, Golden State’s defense should have this covered.

The Case For The Pelicans

The formula for a New Orleans win looks something like this: Davis goes absolutely nuts for seven games + Golden State never finds the range on its perimeter shooting and gets rattled + a lot of luck. How likely is it that things will play out like this? Not very.

That said, the Pelicans can take heart in the knowledge that they have defended the three-point line well this season. New Orleans conceded the third-fewest three-point attempts this season and held opponents to the second-worst percentage. The Splash Brothers will look forward to putting that strength to the test.

As for Davis, his length and expanding overall offensive game are bound to draw lots of extra attention, particularly if he starts hot. This Pelicans roster isn’t overly talented or particularly deep, but it does have weapons in Evans, Anderson, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday that are capable of making defenses pay for overcommitting. Inconsistency has been a major theme for a number of those names listed, but Williams will need to cross his fingers and hope that his auxiliary options are “on” at the right time.

The X-Factor

Jrue Holiday, Pelicans. New Orleans caught a major break with the recent return of Holiday, who was sidelined from mid-January through early-April with a stress reaction in his right leg. The 6'4'' point guard is a solid two-way player, ranking in the top 10 at his position in Real Plus-Minus and No. 13 among point guards in PER.

Holiday boasts a well-rounded offensive game that includes comfort in the pick-and-roll as well as three-point range. He also has the right combination of size and quickness to make elite point guards like Curry work. There’s no doubt Holiday will play a central role against Curry, but exactly how central remains up in the air. Holiday had been on a minutes restriction since returning to the court, and Wednesday’s win over San Antonio marked the first time he logged more than 20 minutes since Jan. 9, even though he came off the bench. Expect Williams to play Holiday as many minutes as the doctors allow, with Evans taking on some of the ball-handlding duties and undersized midseason acquisition Norris Cole, a member of two Heat title teams, prepared to pick up the remaining slack.

Maybe it’s best to sum up Holiday’s role in the series like this: it’s quite difficult to envision New Orleans springing the upset, but it’s damn near impossible to see them doing it without major contributions from their usual starting point guard.

Telling Stat: +14.6

Oracle Arena has long been known as one of the NBA’s most difficult places to play, but the Warriors took home-court advantage to a totally different level this season. Golden State posted a 39-2 home record, which speaks for itself. But Golden State’s +14.6 point differential at home might do an even better job of shouting out how intimidating Oracle has been.

Warriors forward Draymond Green makes quick impact beyond the arc

That +14.6 margin of victory at home is the best mark posted since 2000, topping the 2009 Cavaliers (+14.4), the 2008 Jazz (+14.3) and the 2002 Kings (+14.2). Golden State hasn’t lost at home since Jan. 27 and it hasn’t lost at home to a Western Conference team since Nov. 11. What’s more, the Warriors smoked the Pelicans by an average of 21.5 points in their two home wins this season. Golden State’s fan base will enter Game 1 on Saturday with anticipation that has built up over decades of middling teams and exploded during the Curry era. Good luck, Pelicans.

The Pick: Warriors in 4

Golden State looks like a team that’s ready to make a statement. The Warriors won 82 percent of their games prior to the All-Star break, but, rather than rest on their cushion in the standings, went on to win 81 percent of their games after the All-Star break despite not having any real external incentives. Couple that incredible focus with Curry’s brilliance, the roster’s pristine health, and an overwhelming home crowd, and there’s every reason to expect the Warriors to take care of business quickly.