It was looking like a scheduled loss for the Golden State Warriors. Twenty-four hours after laying the smackdown on a hapless Denver Nuggets team, the defending champions returned home for their second game of a back-to-back against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Being the second night of a back-to-back, tired legs and lethargic movement were expected; if those turned out to be the culprits leading to a loss, no one would blame the Warriors. After all, the silver lining to such a loss would be the impending return of DeMarcus Cousins the following game.
For almost the entirety of the first half, the Warriors lived up to those notions of expected fatigue and lethargy. Lack of defensive intensity — especially at defending the three-point shot — contributed to a Pelicans lead that blew up to as much as 17 points.
The Warriors were able to reduce the deficit down to 5 points at halftime. But with the Pelicans having an excellent shooting night, as well as the presence of the ever-dangerous Davis, the Warriors needed to rely on their MVPs if they sincerely wanted to win this game.
And rely on one MVP, they did. Quite simply, when Stephen Curry is in full MVP mode, there is absolutely no other sight in the NBA that is more pleasurable to watch.
Curry goes nuclear in the third quarter
Before the start of the second half, Curry only had 12 points while shooting 2-of-7 on threes. Early foul trouble forced him to sit for most of the first quarter, and it allowed him to play the entire twelve minutes of the second. But the early trip to the bench clearly had an effect on his rhythm, and it affected his shot early on.
The second half was an opportunity for a brand new start for Curry. His first three came off of a simple action involving staggered screens. Kevin Durant sets the first screen, while Kevon Looney is preparing to set the second. But Durant’s screen is enough for Curry to break free. Also, Durant’s screen catches two defenders, which gives Curry even more space and time for his shot.
One of the “knocks” being heaped on Curry by casual observers and detractors is that he is “just a shooter.” This perceived lack of offensive versatility is astounding; while Curry is indeed an elite shooter — the best the game has ever seen when all has been said and done — he has also shown the ability to take his man off the dribble and slash toward the rim, where he is an elite finisher.
This reverse layup is, quite simply, a display of pure finishing artistry from Curry.
This is followed by an inbounds play drawn up to get Curry another three. He sets a backscreen for a diving Durant, which serves as a diversionary action for Curry to use Draymond Green’s screen. Curry weaves around the screen, forcing his defender to be caught in it, and he breaks loose for the easy jumper.
Keep track of Curry during this possession. The Warriors inbound the ball and give it to Durant on the post, where he is looking for Curry to get free for a shot. Curry makes his way across the paint and loops around back toward the three-point line, while using two screens set by Andre Iguodala and Green. Jrue Holiday does his best to navigate his way past the screens, but when Curry receives the pass, a fake gets Holiday up in the air, giving Curry the split-second he needs to bury the three.
Off of a made basket by the Pelicans, Green quickly pushes the pace, which catches the Pelicans’ defense slightly off guard. Green gets the dribble hand-off to Curry, who forces his defender to scramble and catch up to him. Green’s solid screen gets Curry enough space to go up for another three.
Part of being an elite, MVP-level talent is being fortunate and lucky to have things going your way. When Curry is immediately doubled, he gives up the ball immediately to a popping Durant. He goes up for the three and misses, but the ball bounces its way toward Curry, who is left wide-open on the perimeter.
The Warriors force a turnover, and Green once again pushes the pace. He gives it to Curry, who is given a double high screen or “double drag” to break free for another three. This time, Davis steps up to contest Curry’s shot — but he might as well have been invisible.
The Warriors go to the same play again — a double drag for Curry. This time, he immediately pulls up from deep while using the second screen as a shield to prevent Davis from contesting his shot, and Curry completes his third quarter performance by leaving behind a trail of scorched earth that was once a significant lead by the Pelicans.
Durant, Green, and Looney close the show
Having played the entirety of the third quarter, Curry and Durant begin the fourth quarter on the bench, while the customary second unit tries to buy time until they can be brought back in.
Durant comes back in at the eight minute mark, while Curry waits a while longer to be reinserted. Durant’s impact upon coming back in is immediately felt through his passing ability from the post.
Durant commands a lot of attention when he posts up because of his ability to score from that position, often through taking advantage of mismatches. As such, Holiday sags off of Alfonzo McKinney, shadowing the paint and preparing to double in the event that Durant decides to back his way down. But this leaves McKinney unguarded under the rim, and Durant quickly whips the ball to him for the easy dunk.
Curry comes back in at just under the seven minute mark, and the Warriors immediately look to him for another three. He gets another good look after getting free from a pin down, but misses the shot.
Fortunately, Looney is there to gobble up the offensive rebound despite the presence of Davis. Looney passes out to an open Durant on the perimeter, and he buries the three for the lead.
The Warriors get a stop with Curry handling the ball. They go to a staple of their offense: the Curry/Green pick-and-roll, with Curry drawing a double team. But the double is soft, and Curry whips the ball to Green, who has rolled his way close to the rim. In a two-on-one situation — during which Green’s decision-making shines the brightest — he bounces the ball past the lone defender and into the hands of Looney, who goes up for the dunk.
The Warriors are well aware that defenses will ignore Green on the perimeter. He has had an abysmal three-point shooting performance so far this season, making only 23.9 percent of his threes coming into Wednesday night.
In this sequence, Green stations himself in the corner, where the distance from the three-point line to the rim is at its shortest. Durant manages to makes his way inside, drawing several defenders into the paint. As usual, the defense is virtually ignoring Green, which results in a kick out pass toward him. Green takes advantage of the short corner distance to bury his third three of the night.
On the other end, Durant gets switched onto Davis, who attempts to use his heft to back Durant up. However, Durant channels Andre Iguodala and swipes down when Davis momentarily exposes the ball. The strip is clean, forcing a turnover and a foul from the Pelicans to prevent a transition basket.
With Curry switched onto Nikola Mirotić, he uses his speed advantage to make his way inside for the layup. Davis steps up and successfully contests the shot — but this leaves no one to box out Looney, who tips in the miss.
To effectively put the game out of reach for the Pelicans, the Warriors put Curry in charge of ball-handling duties. Iguodala comes up and sets a screen, and as expected, the defense blitzes Curry. To counter this, Curry passes the ball to Iguodala on the short roll, crashing the defense and allowing him to kick the ball out to Green, who is stationed in the corner — his favorite spot to shoot from. He promptly knocks down his fourth three of the night, reminding the Pelicans and everyone else of the times when he made people pay for ignoring him on the perimeter.
The Warriors completed their comeback despite being tired and weary from having to remind the Nuggets of who the true top dogs of the Western Conference really are. They could have easily bent over backwards against the Pelicans, and for the majority of the first half, it seemed like the expected defeat was well on schedule.
But all of a sudden, Curry decided that he didn’t want to lose — and he expressed his sentiment by scoring 23 points in the third quarter. He finished with another MVP stat line: 41 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 11-of-22 from the field (50 percent), 9-of-17 from three (52.9 percent), and a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line.
Durant also had an excellent night, with 30 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists. He was focused and locked in during the fourth quarter, making crucial plays on both ends of the floor that helped the Warriors pull away for the victory.
After hauling in a career-high 12 rebounds against the Nuggets, Looney proceeded to match that with another 12 rebounds against the Pelicans, with 6 of them being offensive boards. Looney has gone through a lot of trials and tribulations during his four years in the NBA; to see him blossom into a solid role player is one of the most endearing stories so far during this season.
But the player who arguably shined the brightest is Green, who finished with 17 points, 14 assists, 6 rebounds, and only 1 turnover. Over the past five games, he has dished out 50 assists and only 6 turnovers — perhaps the best stretch of his career in terms of playmaking.
He also shot 4-of-7 from three-point range, increasing his percentage from 23.9 to 27.0 percent. This may very well be the start of a three-point renaissance from Green, fueled mainly by his desire to make defenses pay for treating him like a non-entity on the perimeter.
On Wednesday night, that same desire fueled the Warriors’ will to win, despite it being the second game of a back-to-back.
“Most people would call this a scheduled loss,” said Green to Kerith Burke after the game.
“We’re not settling for that.”
And settle, the Warriors did not.
Forty-five down, 37 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.