Anthony Davis experiences the give and take of the Warriors' defense
To what extent the Warriors' Game 1 lead, which had dwindled from 25 to four by the fourth quarter, was ever really in jeopardy against the Pelicans is a matter for debate. What isn't is the irrepressible force that allowed New Orleans to save face at all. Anthony Davis needs no introduction. Yet he announced his postseason arrival all the same with a performance worthy of pomp and circumstance: a playoff-high 35 points, 20 of which came on 7-of-10 shooting in the final frame, seven rebounds, and four blocked shots.
Adding to the fantastical quality of Davis' debut were those he lined up opposite. Scoring at this volume and efficiency just isn't done against the Warriors, least of all by frontcourt players forced to operate against two of the NBA's top defenders. Overcoming one of Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut is terrible trouble. Getting the best of both is unthinkable for any but the rarest of basketball talents.
Davis clearly qualifies. Only one other big man (Blake Griffin) scored 35 points or more against Golden State all season. Beyond that, Davis himself registered the next two highest frontcourt scoring totals against the Warriors with a 30-point outing in December and a 29-point follow-up (and win) in April. His game, unpinnable in character, seems to elude the grasp of even the NBA's best defense.
It's worth clarifying that Davis' fourth-quarter surge came only with adjustment. Davis' play to that point had been notable but, by his standards, uneven. His first 15 points were offset by missed jumpers and five turnovers—a shocking total from a player who finished the season in the bottom three in turnover rate. Davis is a cautious sort. But on Saturday that caution came to work against him as Green's invasion of his personal space caused Davis to idle a bit while working at the elbow:
Time and again the ball came to Davis in this space—arguably his strongest spot on the floor. A typical matchup would afford him options: an advantage in quickness to drive to the rim or room enough to fire up a mid-range jumper. Green gave up neither, instead hugging Davis close enough as to make one of the league's most dangerous scorers shy from even looking at the rim on some possessions. Davis' ability to facilitate playmaking with hand-offs and screens is essential. But it needs to be kept on balance, and for much of Game 1 the Warriors were able to nudge Davis into holding the ball for the sake of trying to improve his teammates' station.
This is the dilemma the Warriors present. Green interrupts offensive action so consistently that it encourages opponents to steer around him. Yet once they do so, they find active denial on the perimeter and Bogut lurking behind. An aversion to either course sometimes leaves opponents trapped between options. It was under those conditions that Davis began his playoff career. Perhaps it came from a conscious effort to get his teammates involved, knowing full well that one doesn't beat the Warriors alone. Regardless, Davis' hesitation played to the benefit of Golden State's pressure—even on those possessions where Davis ended up with a shot attempt.
Progress for Davis came with two critical developments. The first was as straightforward a response as was possible: a clear intent to make his move more quickly and avoid the Warriors' defensive bind. This was Davis' first touch of the second half after having a chance to regroup:
The discussion surrounding the game is laced with buzzy phrases apt in reference to Davis' shift: he was "more aggressive" or "less tentative" or adopted an "attack mentality." Whatever the characterization, Davis made moves. He didn't idle as he waited for a play's first option to spring free, instead protecting its momentum as he progressed to possible alternatives:
As the game wore on, it became all the more clear that Davis' best option was himself. He became less concerned with setting up rote hand-offs and more so with finding ways to score over and around Green. He proved quite successful, in part due to the other significant factor in play: the periodic absence of Bogut.
With 5:13 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Warriors nursing a 16-point lead, Bogut took a seat for what he surely imagined would be the game's duration. Davis thought otherwise. Over the next three minutes Davis would drop 10 points without missing a shot and open up Eric Gordon for a three-pointer off of his roll to the rim. Bogut was called back into play with 2:04 left to play and the Warriors' advantage nearly halved.
This was consistent with a night-long trend that makes obvious sense. When Davis only had to maneuver past Green—particularly when Green was playing the part of an undersized center alongside four perimeter teammates—the open lane facilitated his change in disposition. When staring down a lane where Bogut had taken up residence, on the other hand, Davis often opted to give up the ball and work a different angle.
Overall, Davis shot just 41.2% from the field, was kept from the offensive glass completely, and turned the ball over four times as often in the 30 minutes when Bogut was on the floor, per NBA.com. This is just one reason among many why New Orleans' late push in Game 1 was a product of that particular moment rather than some portent of a competitive series to come. Davis cannot be shut out. He will be periodically brilliant in ways that Golden State cannot fully control, a living testament to super stardom. Yet all that really matters is that he be made sufficiently uncomfortable along the way and often enough made to hesitate. The Warriors trade in these outcomes as natural products of their collective defense. Remarkable as Davis may be, his own devices can only carry the Pelicans so far when arranged against two of the league's finest defenders and the strength of systemic backing.