OAKLAND—Draymond Green was ticked. Actually, he used a different word to describe his feelings, but we’re not in a locker room now, so let’s go with “ticked.” There were just under four minutes left in the first quarter when Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr pulled him from the game on Monday night, which caused him great displeasure. “I mean, I was really hot,” Green said. “Coach came up to me and asked me what I was so mad about and I said, ‘You took me out of the game and Anthony Davis is still in the game.’” Green was getting animated now, in the re-telling, showing the kind of intensity that has made him so surprisingly indispensable to the Warriors ever since he showed up as a second-round draft choice three years ago. “So Coach said, ‘Listen, there’s a method to our madness,’” Green said. “Then he walked away and I was still (ticked.)”
The Warriors are used to Green getting heated, in fact, they count on it. “It’s hard to put into words what Draymond means the team,” Kerr said. He’s one of our leaders and the guy who talks the most trash to the other team, to the refs, to his teammates, to me. He’s kind of our life line. It’s great.”
Green, as much as anyone, was the Warriors’ life line on Monday night. They were floundering a bit against the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, locked in the kind of tight game they weren’t supposed to experience until later in the playoffs, until he sparked a fourth-quarter defensive stand that finally put the Pelicans away in a 97-87 win that gave Golden State a 2-0 lead in their first round series.
The Warriors led 88-84 when Green re-entered the game with 5:17 left, and it was no coincidence that the Pelicans scored only three points the rest of the way. Golden State forced them into one forced shot and bad possession after another. It was the culmination of a stingy defensive second half for the Warriors, who limited New Orleans to just nine field goals after halftime.
“They’re a handful,” Kerr said of the Pelicans. “Between Davis and their three-point shooters and the penetration from (Tyreke) Evans. You’ve got to cover a lot of floor and try to contain Davis with other people because he’s too good to guard one-on-one. So it’s a lot to ask, but we feel like the identity of our team is our defense and our versatility at that end. I thought Draymond was just fantastic. (Andrew) Bogut was fantastic, and the defense carried the day.”
Green was far from the only hero for the Warriors, which is kind of the point. The difference between an eighth seed like New Orleans and a top seed like Golden State is often the number of options at each team’s disposal. There is only one way that the Pelicans can win a game in this series, much less the entire thing—they have to get a transcendent performance from Davis, their 6’11” MVP-in-the-making. Davis came close to providing that kind of performance in Game 2 with 26 points and 10 rebounds, but he played 45 minutes and seemed fatigued down the stretch. The Warriors, on the other hand, have proven that they have a variety of ways they can tame the Pelicans.
They don’t have to have spectacular nights from Stephen Curry, who was merely decent by his standards in Game 2. Curry had 22 points on 21 shots, and he didn’t score a point after the 5:36 mark in the third quarter. They don’t have to shoot the lights out from long range, as they so often do. The Warriors shot just 44.2% overall and 30% from beyond the three-point arc. “A lot of things that normally work for us didn’t work as well tonight,” Curry said, “but there are a lot of facets to our game.”
Among those facets is the best bench in the league. The Warrior reserves were missing in action in Game 1, but they re-emerged on Monday night at the best possible time for Golden State. The Warriors trailed 28-17 after the first quarter and were badly in need of a boost. Leandro Barbosa came off the bench to score eight points on an assortment of drives and jumpers, Marreese Speights drilled a couple of mid-range shots and Andre Iguodala made a corner three after some crisp ball movement.
“Nobody will write it, nobody will talk about it, but the bench won us the game,” Green said. “When they left the game we were still down seven, but they changed the complete pace and tempo of the game. We were getting punched and getting punched and getting punched, and then the second unit came out and threw a punch.”
In a performance in which the Warriors’ focus was inconsistent, in Kerr’s estimation, they nonetheless showed why they are a championship favorite. The biggest question about Golden State was how they would weather a postseason game in which their jump shots weren’t falling, when they had to grind things out, when they had to handle a tight fourth quarter. On Monday night, at least, they had all the right answers to those questions.
But the Pelicans have proven to be a worthy challenger—“They are who we thought they were,” Kerr said—and they promise to be even more difficult to deal with when the series moves to New Orleans for Games 3 and 4.
“It’s way different in the playoffs,” Davis said. “The physicality is different. The pace is different. The calls are different. So it’s tough. It’s all new to me.” But Davis is a fast learner, as is his team. The Warriors have answered all the questions so far, but the test is far from over.