OAKLAND, Calif.—Dominance is too new to the Golden State Warriors for them to act casual about it. After 67 regular season victories, they admit their playoff role as the hunted feels unfamiliar, a little bit like a new jacket that needs a few alterations before it is a perfect fit. These are not the plucky little “We Believe” Warriors of years past, playing with house money, fueling themselves on others’ low expectations of them. These are the “We Better Not Fail” Warriors who know that a stumble or two in their first-round series against New Orleans will jeopardize all the remarkable accomplishments of the last six months.
That’s why point guard Stephen Curry spoke of a “weird tension” when the Pelicans were throwing a decent-sized scare into the Warriors on Saturday at Oracle Arena, slicing a 25-point Golden State lead in the third quarter to four in the fourth. It’s why Warriors coach Steve Kerr said it was “good for us to feel that. It was good for us to deal with the feeling in the building, especially as a favorite, when a team starts to come back. That’s all part of it.”
[daily_cut.NBA]The Warriors could afford to classify the entire experience as a relatively painless lesson learned, because they held on to put the persistent Pelicans away, 106-99, in the opening game of their Western Conference first-round series. Ultimately they did just enough of the things that earned them that 67-15 record and home court advantage throughout the postseason. They defended well, particularly Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, who shackled New Orleans big man Anthony Davis until he broke free in a big way with 20 points in the fourth quarter. (He finished with 35.) They received balanced scoring from their starters, who all scored in double figures and looked especially sharp for lengthy stretches, when the offense was humming with ball movement. And they rode Curry, who scored 34 points spiced with his usual assortment of shots that make you rewind your DVR.
It wasn’t the start-to-finish demolition that so many Golden State home games have been (the Warriors were not only 39-2 at Oracle during the regular season, their average margin of victory was a whopping 14.6 points) but it might have been just the sort of game it needed. After a month of playing relatively meaningless games because they were so far ahead of the pack, it was a reminder that the cruise control button has been disabled, and that there will probably no more fourth quarters in which Curry can sit back and watch his teammates finish off easy wins.
He was able to sit out 17 final periods this season, and it looked like he might be able to get out the recliner again on Saturday when the Warriors built an 82-57 lead in the third. But when the Pelicans took advantage of the Warriors' second unit, which was uncharacteristically off its game, to cut it to 11, Curry was called back into action. He wasn’t perfect. He actually missed a couple of free throws down the stretch, which nearly caused the Oracle fans to faint from shock, but he helped the Warriors steady themselves enough to survive and avoid the doubts that might have begun to creep in with a loss. “The world expects you to win, so I guess there’s a little more pressure,” Green said. “But we expected them to make a run at some point.”
The Warriors were encouraged by their ability to withstand that new kind of pressure, but now they will have to deal with a New Orleans team emboldened by coming so close to stealing a Game 1 win from the league’s best team on the road. The Pelicans were dreadful in the first period, falling behind 28-13, and Davis, their 6’10”, long-limbed star, was only sporadically effective for the first three quarters. He rejected four shots, but the combination of Green and Bogut frustrated him offensively, and chasing Green around on the perimeter kept him from being much of a force on the boards. He had only one rebound late in the third quarter before finishing with four. “It was tough,” Davis said. “You see Draymond there [on the perimeter] and Bogut just waiting for me to come. But we tried to adjust in the second half, with me catching more at the elbow and trying to attack.”
The Pelicans accomplished several of their objectives. They steadied themselves after being rattled early by the volume of the crowd and the size of the moment. They made sure the Warriors’ second unit, led by Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, didn’t extend the Golden State lead as it so often does. The Warriors got only 12 points from their bench. And they eventually found a way to free Davis offensively. They did almost everything they wanted except win, which they fully expect to do in Game 2 on Monday night. Pelicans coach Monty Williams kept referring to how his team had “figured some things out” in Game 1, particularly in how to deploy Davis. “I think we settled down, which was a focus for us, but we’re not satisfied with just settling down.”
The Warriors could have said much the same thing. They had to settle down after the Pelicans made their late run, and they may have figured out how to deal with their new status as a heavy postseason favorite. “It’s a little nerve-racking for everybody,” Kerr said. “For the most part we played a really good game. It’s the playoffs. You win and get better the next time.” The Warriors will try that jacket on again in Game 2—the one with the target on its back. Now that it has a little more of a lived-in feel, maybe it will be a better fit.