Nihilism set upon the Smoothie King Center in waves. The initial dents in New Orleans' lead didn't earn much reaction. After a bit more whittling, Harrison Barnes's put-back dunk to bring the margin to single digits triggered a palpable anxiety. Golden State has that effect; the shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson leaves no lead safe, least of all an eight-point edge with 3:34 left to play. Each successive offensive rebound by the Warriors only stoked the crowd's unease. The air grew thinner, and by the time Anthony Davis came up errant on a free throw that would have put the game safely away with 9.2 seconds remaining, all the oxygen left allowed for one final gasp.
The crowd held its breath as Curry hoisted up a three-pointer that, according to Pelicans coach Monty Williams, he never should have been allowed to take. It missed. Warriors reserve Marreese Speights scurried into frame just in time to collect the rebound and shovel the ball back to Curry for another look. Up went the shot and away went the Pelicans' lead. New Orleans was dragged by Curry and his teammates into an overtime it never wanted, and in five minutes saw all its hard work end in a 123-119 loss. Those fans who stayed filtered out, deflated. None of it meant a damn thing.
For three quarters the Warriors were stalled out of their typical offense by the best defense the Pelicans could offer. New Orleans' switch-heavy game plan very much resembles that of Golden State in both form and function. The balance is a bit more delicate given the personnel involved, though Davis, Dante Cunningham and Ryan Anderson all find means to keep competitive within their mismatches against opposing guards. Their work in this particular game derailed staple sets from the Warriors playbook, marginalized the Warriors' role players for much of the game and brought one of the most fluid offenses in the league to a standstill.
The version of the Warriors that the Pelicans effectively created was unrecognizable from the titan that won 67 games in a historic regular season. Golden State shot just 35.8% from the field in those first three quarters. Besides Curry and Thompson, the rest of the team went 0-for-7 on three-pointers and attempted just four free throws. Balanced switching had divorced the Warriors' stars from their support system—dribble hand-offs and screen-and-rolls seemed to go nowhere in particular.
All of which led, alternatively, to forced creation and desperate passing. The former worked sparingly. The latter put the Pelicans in a downhill sprint for the bulk of this game, turning deflections and steals on the perimeter into completely uncontested fast breaks. The Warriors didn't just play losing basketball, they seemed to carry themselves at times as if they had already lost. Interaction between teammates turned snappy. Body language took a turn. Effort plays evaporated. Golden State would rally, but only after surviving some darker moments.
[daily_cut.NBA]Everything the Warriors tried had been answered. Davis (29 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks) loomed over every possession, whether in finishing an unreachable lob or decimating any shots those in his proximity dared to take. Ryan Anderson (26 points, 10-for-14 FG) saw the basket swell to accommodate his every attempt. Turnarounds, post-ups, one-footed fadeaways. All things must go. Whether a Golden State defender was around to challenge Anderson's shot seemed inconsequential, and with those makes he helped to position New Orleans for what seemed a certain win.
Yet to the extent that this game had a single turning point, it may have come on any of the many Warrior offensive rebounds in the fourth. Switching allowed New Orleans to close off the points of connection within Golden State's offense. It also, however, pulled Davis and his fellow bigs—visibly exhausted by having their responsibilities stretched—away from the rim and deferred too much rebounding responsibility to a team already running small. Omer Asik has been almost unplayable in this series, making Anderson and Cunningham far more realistic options in tandem with Davis. The Pelicans were pulled so far out of position that any shortcomings on the glass were made worse. Draymond Green (12 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, three steals) had a field day, and as a team the Warriors grabbed 10 offensive rebounds and scored 16 second-chance points in the fourth quarter alone.
It's even more brutal for the Pelicans that Curry (40 points, 10-for-29 FG, nine assists) didn't shoot especially well. Even during the Warriors' comeback, he proved a touch too willing to fire on long threes he probably should have declined. Curry didn't quite seem himself until first drawing net on a three-pointer to cut the lead to two, 105-107, with just 11 seconds remaining in regulation, and then moments later in dispatching the Pelicans' best efforts to send the game to overtime. There's a ruthlessness to the way Curry guns for the big shot. On balance, that eagerness helped the Warriors break their rut just enough to do what shouldn't have been possible.
The reality for the Pelicans is that they can contain Curry and his teammates with three quarters of terrific defense, get the most out of various role players, sprint out to score an efficient 119 points of their own and still lose to the Warriors in excruciating fashion. Futility is the lot of the eighth seed. This New Orleans now knows that all too well, having suffered first-hand the defining emptiness of a near-win.