After a Game 3 flop in New Orleans, similar to that lone first-round loss against San Antonio last month, coach Steve Kerr provided a quick reminder to the Golden State Warriors:
It’s not supposed to be easy at this stage — especially for the defending champions.
There’s no way this postseason can go as brilliantly as the last one. That remarkable, record-setting 16-1 run to the title, well, it’s not going to happen often, or maybe ever again.
“I told our team actually after Game 3 the day we practiced, I said, ‘What we did last year was the first time and only time anybody has ever accomplished that in the playoffs, gone 16-1,” Kerr said. “I know the Lakers went 15-1, they had a similar kind of joy ride where very little adversity, but that’s the extreme exception. Year after year, the NBA champion has to go through so much to get there. And that’s why you pour champagne on each other, because it’s really hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. The fact that it is so difficult brings out the best in you because you have to be on edge and on guard.”
Now comes the next and most daunting test in this quest for a repeat.
The Warriors eliminated the Pelicans with a 113-104 win Tuesday night and are on to the Western Conference finals to face the top-seeded Houston Rockets, who closed out the Jazz earlier Tuesday in their own Game 5. This is the matchup so many have looked to for months.
“You can’t believe the hype,” Klay Thompson guarded before the Warriors played. “Everybody is already talking about Warriors-Rockets.”
And for good reason. It might just have a Finals feel with so much talent and scoring on both teams.
“I think it will be very entertaining,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
Golden State has succeeded playing big and small. It has pushed the pace and dealt with San Antonio slowing things way down. The Warriors have endured a couple of blips this time around, and that hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.
“Every series you play gets harder and harder and harder,” Stephen Curry said, referencing Kerr’s remarks about how hard it is.
Kerr didn’t have to say anything to his players on the urgency of closing out the Pelicans in Game 5 at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors won a franchise-record 15th straight home playoff game to match the Bulls’ NBA record.
“I dial people on my rotary phone. Nobody seems to answer, though,” Kerr quipped. “Nobody answers a home phone anymore. No texts necessary.”
Curry has his swagger and stroke back now that he has played four games following nearly six weeks on the sidelines with a sprained left knee. He played 37 minutes in the clincher and the entire fourth quarter.
When Gentry was asked about the Warriors’ “Hamptons Five” starting lineup of Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Thompson — all of the guys who were together working on Durant signing with Golden State in July 2016 — he had some fun.
“You can call them any kind of five, they’re really good,” Gentry said. “You can call them the Jackson Five. … They’ve got 2 1/2 Michaels.”
Yet there was a stretch late in the regular season when Kerr wasn’t sure the Warriors would bounce back defensively and return to their dominant form. Scoring has never been a problem.
“Our defense was so bad in Indiana and in Utah, there was absolutely a part of me that thought, ‘I don’t know if we can get our defense together, I know we’ll get our offense together,'” Kerr said. “Defense requires a mentality and a spirit and a unity and sense of purpose from the five guys on the floor. We were just a shell of ourselves that last week.”
The Warriors weren’t playing for anything then, assured of the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They have learned over recent seasons how to elevate the level when the playoffs arrive.
So far, instead, the Warriors have found a way to defend both styles, preferring to run with the fast-paced, push-the-tempo Pelicans while dealing with daunting big man Anthony Davis and the imposing load he is in the middle.
“This group is very smart and versatile and the key is the effort that they bring. I think inevitably, you see it in every series, if you handle your business early there’s going to be a natural letdown,” Kerr said. “When the letdown happens, how do you respond? That’s what I always look for, and that’s what was very satisfying with (Game 4). We didn’t bring the necessary force in Game 3, we were threatened on the road, and our guys brought it and set a tone early, and that’s the mark of a great team.”
When the stakes got bigger, Green delivered — leading the way with his intensity on both ends and becoming the first Warriors player to average a triple-double in a playoff series. He also had two key baskets in the closing minutes.
“We love his intensity, and when it’s channeled in productive plays, whether it’s stuff that doesn’t show up in the stats sheet, or if it does we really rely on that,” Curry said. “He’s been playing amazing this whole playoff run, taking the challenge defensively whoever he is guarding, being an officiator on offense, knocking down shots.”
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