The Pelicans aren’t dead yet: Inside Golden State’s Game 1 blowout

I’m not ready to eulogize the New Orleans Pelicans yet. This team has clicked with Nikola Mirotic stretching the floor and Jrue Holiday emerging as an All-Star perimeter threat, and one lopsided half – nay, a lopsided quarter – shouldn’t undo all of that. More importantly, the film from Game 1 suggests that the Pels, who are 11-point underdogs for Game 2, will have a lot more fight in them on Tuesday. Here are my takeaways from the Warriors 21-point first-half victory, and a few areas New Orleans can improve upon.

Golden State on Offense

Let’s start with the obvious: Golden State notched 76 points in 57 first-half possessions for a glistening 133 offensive rating. In the last two seasons, that’d fall in the 98th percentile among all games played, and teams with such an efficiency finished 97-1. In other words, New Orleans won’t win a game if the Warriors score like that. But regression to the mean makes it unlikely that New Orleans will have to face a 75-point half again, even with Steph Curry returning. Golden State finished the entire game with a 118 rating after extended garbage time in the second half, which is just above their five-game average versus the Pels this year; expect efficiency closer to 115 than 130.

The Warriors surprise Death lineup variant — with Nick Young swapped in for Curry — was a move that New Orleans failed to counter. Despite that, they used pace to hang with the Warriors in the first 15 minutes of the game. Golden State put on an incredible passing display, converting 12 quality passes based on my scoring, spearheaded by Draymond Green’s dishing exhibition. Green’s synergy with the game’s best off-ball cutters and shooters – in Game 1, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson – stresses defenses to the breaking point. Notice how he threads needles by recognizing defensive overplays:

Durant’s isolation game was on display, but I’m not sure it’s a huge issue for New Orleans going forward. Against Mirotic, he shot 3-5 with two easy scores (one at the rim) and created a shot for a teammate (Mirotic needed help). Mirotic struggled badly against him in space, and the Pels can’t leave him on Durant Island. But Mirotic contested well at times, and when Thompson’s shooting heads to the bench, I imagine New Orleans will live with Durant midrange pull-ups. Notice how hopeless this sequence looks as the strong-side defender (No. 44, Solomon Hill) stays ball-side to deter Durant because his man is not a shooting threat:

Darius Miller played him well there, and I imagine Miller should see more of the court during Game 2. Sets like this are big wins for the Pels, ending in some sort of Durant pullup, a drive into the Lion’s Den or a…David West triple? In the first half, Durant was 1-2 against Solomon Hill, firing up two hair-trigger triples, turning it over once and vacuuming an extra defender off the ball when Hill trailed him poorly. Hill guarding him didn’t work well.

Holiday was Duran’t primary defender in their April 7 matchup, and did a good job using strength to push KD off his spots. Durant can still shoot over Holiday – heck, he can shoot over almost anyone – and he made both jumpers he took over Jrue, but that kind of mid-post isolation stagnates the Warriors movement and could ultimately play into New Orleans’ hands. I’d be comfortable with Holiday on Durant with the Death lineup on the court and Miller and Mirotic splitting the rest of the duty based on lineups.

Additionally, New Orleans had seven defensive errors per my system of categorization, a bit on the high side. A bunch of these breakdowns came from Ian Clark, who had a rough go during the Warriors blitzkrieg in the middle of the quarter. It’s hard to play error-free against the Warriors style, but some adjustments and regression should make for more efficient defense in Game 2.

New Orleans on Offense

On offense, the Pels only generated four lob chances for Anthony Davis out of screening action. Davis’s gravity on these plays and enormous catch radius makes this one of their best half-court threats, and they ended up with two open looks, a pair of free throws and this man-amongst-boys bucket to open the game:

When AD has space, he can outmaneuver or out leap a single defender. But with the Pelican shooters on the bench, Davis has less space to attack. This is particularly noteworthy because Pelican wings cut hard into open space — both E’twaun Moore and Holiday collected layups by doing so — but this space disappears without three-point threats stretching the D. Notice how Davis is bounced around like he’s in a subway car, then attacks with four defenders in the lane and no attractive outlet valve:

The panacea is more shooting (and Moore’s shooting) along with a dose of Darius Miller. The Pels need multiple long-range threats on the court at once, because without them, Golden State knows to pack the paint. This disrupts Davis post ups, Davis rim runs and those wing cuts to the basket, which erodes Rajon Rondo’s passing value. It’s all captured well in this sequence:

To boot, New Orleans missed two bunnies at the rim and committed three unforced turnovers in the half, one of which came on a two-on-one. These can be minimized, and zapping Clark’s minutes and pairing Hill with multiple shooters should help too. A full-strength Golden State squad is clearly a level above New Orleans, but basketball is a high-variance game, and that variance isn’t always one-sided. Even with Curry back, I expect a different Game 2.