Welcome back to "Watch of the Week," our intermittent series on which game you absolutely, positively should not miss this week. This time out, our pick is an early season rematch between the mildly mortal Golden State Warriors and the suddenly serious New Orleans Pelicans.
Last time these two teams met, Golden State—then presumed to once again run away with the West—beat New Orleans 128-120, mostly behind a monstrous shooting performance (65% for 33 points) from Klay Thompson and an otherworldly shot-blocking display (7) from Kevin Durant. For their part, New Orleans saw little from their non-Boogie and Anthony Davis cast, but stayed in the game behind 70 points, 29 rebounds, and 10 assists from their two big men.
Since that game—the second of the season—both teams have challenged their preseason expectations and reputations. Golden State is still great… but not quite the Godzilla-Shiva-Darkseid Destroyer of Worlds we’d been promised. At 13-5 just under a quarter of the way through the season, they have only the third best record in the league, behind Boston and Houston. Worse, they just took an absolute shellacking from dysfunctional rivals—and former home of GSW star Kevin Durant—OKC.
Don’t get me wrong; Golden State is still a nuclear dragon unleashed on the Tokyo of the NBA landscape… now it just stubs its toe occasionally. Durant, Curry, and Thompson are all sill nightly threats for 40 points, and it isn’t uncommon to see all three of them uncork for 25-30 in the same game. Their bench remains loaded, and their fans remain LOUD. And yet… they’ve already lost 5 games. That didn’t happen until Christmas last year, and it didn’t happen until February 19th the year before.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has been less the probable lottery team they were projected as, and more the second-coming-of-Hakeem-and-Sampson they were initially billed as… though Sampson was arguably never as good as either Boogie or Davis. Despite early concerns (justified by last year’s abbreviated team-up) that the two stars would eat into each other’s production, both men are putting up career best stat lines: Cousins is throwing up 26.4/13.1/5.4/1.7/1.5 on 46% shooting while Davis is posting 25.9/11.2/2.9/1.4/1.9 on 57% shooting. Guys have won the MVP with weaker stat lines than either of those.
More than the numbers, though, it’s been a blast watching Boogie and Davis redefine the role of the big man—allegedly obsolete—in the current NBA. Cousins* is the best passing big we’ve seen since at least Sabonis and Shaq, and Davis isn’t far behind him. Both guys can also drill threes, put the ball on the floor, and pull up when needed. They have two complete and complimentary skillsets, and their 4-5 pick and roll is an affront to the Basketball Fundamentals Gods that also happens to be impossible to defend.
*Along with Denver’s Nikola Jokic.
So, while their first meeting wasn’t so long ago, it’s safe to say that neither the Warriors nor the Pelicans are who we thought they were back then. Moreover, the Pelicans may be the one team in the league best constructed to punish the Warriors’ undersized roster construction and defensive identity.
Golden State’s swarming, switch-heavy defense—particularly in their “death lineup” configuration with Draymond Green at center—is built to withstand (sometimes barely) one post behemoth through a combination of Green’s oversized defensive skillset, Durant’s length and weak side brilliance, and the all-around defensive excellence of Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Key word there is “one.”
That recipe falls apart against two elite big men. It was true when Memphis used to give the Warriors more trouble than they were supposed to behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and it’s true now, with the Pelicans trotting out two bigs who are much, much better—or at least considerably more versatile—than Zach Randolph ever was.
It’s a lot harder for Kevin Durant to swoop in on the weak side when he’s coming to help on as skilled a passer as Cousins—who seems to have double-team sonar—even if he weren’t leaving a 57% shooter to do it. As great as Green is at playing bigger than his 6’7 frame, it’s harder to do against a physical phenom like Boogie, who routinely bullies seven footers like they were grade schoolers.
Golden State’s switches become much less effective against two bigs who can both shoot and, worse, put the ball on the floor. No matter how good Thompson and Iguodala are, asking them contain Davis or Cousins driving to the rim after a switch may as well be asking them to saddle a charging rhinoceros. As for shooting, one of both Green and Durant’s favorite tactics is playing off their bigger assignments in order to shrink he floor, daring them to shoot threes… but Boogie and Davis both make threes, especially open ones.
All that’s before getting into what’s always been Golden State’s Achilles heel: rebounding. The one (and usually only) weakness of the death lineup is that it’s a mildly below average rebounding team… normally, that’s an absorbable weakness, especially given what that lineup can do on the other end. But against a starting lineup that racks up about ten more rebounds per game than the death lineup (and tallied 16 offensive boards in their last meeting), it’s a much bigger problem; Cousins and Davis are too good, and too efficient, for even the Warriors to safely give them that many extra chances.
Luckily for the Warriors, they get to play offense, too. That’s where things get tricky for New Orleans. They have the firepower to score against Golden State, and to outrebound them, but nobody really wins a shootout with the Warriors, at least not consistently. There needs to be at least some resistance put up against that consistently elite offense; an offense featuring three of the best shooters of all time.
The Pelicans aren’t really equipped for that. Their defensive identity—only moderately successful as it is—is all about taking away the paint. They do that pretty well, and it’ll cost Durant and company some easy opportunities. But the Warriors nuke teams from long range, and the Pelicans’ defensive personnel—with the lone exception of perhaps E’Twuan Moore—aren’t equipped to chase Curry, Thompson, and Durant around on the perimeter.
At that point, it all becomes a numbers game. Can the Pelicans dominate enough offensively, and take sufficiently iron-fisted control of the glass, to compensate for Golden State’s characteristic air raids?
Hard to say. But it’s going to be a heckuva a lot of fun to watch them try. Golden State vs. New Orleans (5:30 Pacific Time): our pick for the Watch of the Week.