For a very long time last night, it looked like the New Orleans Pelicans were about to give us two of the best things an early-round playoff series can offer: An eight seed catching fire and pulling off an upset on its home floor, and a young superstar’s first signature playoff win. We were headed toward both of those outcomes for three and a half quarters, and then Steph Curry happened.
Before we get to Curry, it’s important to remember what the tenor of the first 42 minutes of this game was. The Pelicans were dominating one of the greatest regular-season teams in history. Sure, the Pellies’ talent level belies their seed in a stacked Western Conference, but an eight seed taking it to a one seed with such ferocity is still a big deal. It wasn’t anywhere near as shocking as the ambush that the 2007 Warriors sprung on the top-seeded Mavericks, but Anthony Davis and crew were playing with a kind of outlaw spirit that harkened back to Baron Davis’s insurgent squad.
Tyreke Evans was slithering in and out of the paint at will, Eric Gordon was dropping bombs, Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter were scrapping in the muck, Ryan Anderson was inhabited by the spirit of Kobe Bryant, and the drunk-as-hell fans were eating up every second of it. The Pelicans were playing fast, punishing basketball, and Anthony Davis’s long arms were wrapped around the court all night. His jumper was as smooth and automatic as it’s ever been, he was snuffing out shots in the paint and chasing Steph Curry off the three-point line, and he spent a good chunk of the night performing Mortal Kombat finishing moves on Draymond Green—the winner of the Defensive Player of the Year popular vote—in the post.
This was a moment, for both Davis and the Pelicans, and even when the Warriors started to make their run in the fourth quarter, the victory still felt very much in hand when Davis checked back into the game with 5:33 remaining. Here came the young star—the guy who will own the league sooner rather then later—to put the game to bed and mark First Superstar Performance in a Playoff Game on his career checklist. You only ever get to see a player like Davis check that box once, and it’s always fun as hell.
Just a few years ago, it was Curry checking that box, but that was back when he was still an ascendant mortal. Last night, he was a god coming down to punish apostates. He let us all have our fun and worship Davis for a little a while, but eventually everyone has to answer to Steph.
The game was supposed to end with Davis slapping up another seven or eight points, blocking a few shots, and grabbing the final rebound. Instead, it ended with him looking uneasy and lost, missing shots throughout the end of the fourth quarter and overtime. Curry was finding his final form, and Davis failed to match him. Meanwhile, every other player on the Pelicans wilted and also forgot how to box out. The Dubs’ big men were suddenly hulk-stomping through the paint, grabbing offensive rebounds and creating second-chance shots at will. The collapse was total and devastating.
Nobody thought for a second that the Warriors weren’t going to easily advance through this round, but the whole point of watching a series like this is the chance to see a game like the one the Pelicans gave their fans for three and a half quarters. New Orleans fans shouldn’t have been expecting a a series win, but they should have been hoping to be there for the moment when everything went suddenly right, to witness that one win that would leave them half-drunk and delirious for a day spent studying the box score at work, just to make sure that really happened. That’s what the Pelicans lost out on last night.
Maybe New Orleans will scrap out a win in Game 4 and stave off the sweep, but it won’t feel like the party that last night’s game was shaping up to be. After what Steph Curry just did to them, not even a double-digit lead late in the game will be enough to exorcise the lingering dread and regret from the arena. The moment has passed.