By Erik Malinowski
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Give the New Orleans Pelicans credit: They really did try everything they could to contain Stephen Curry. They double-teamed him They kept him out on the perimeter as much as possible. They even used all-world defender Anthony Davis to spy him on occasion.
Viewed one way, the results were actually somewhat encouraging. The Pelicans outscored the Golden State Warriors in the second half by double-digits. Curry missed nine three-point attempts, something that hasn't happened since February 9. And with just a few seconds to play, the Pelicans were an improbable-but-not-impossible four-point play away from tying the game that once seemed comically out of reach.
But viewed another way -- one that actually involved you watching the events unfold here at Oracle Arena for Game 1 -- you would've seen that the contest was never as close as the 106-99 final score. You'd know that every double-team pressure would just provoke Curry to whip-pass the ball across his frame and out of danger. You would attest to Curry still dropping four crucial threes, on top of the NBA-record 286 he sank in the regular season. Over 40 minutes of court time, Curry (34 points and five assists) guided an offense where every Warrior starter scored in double-digits and the only lead change of the afternoon occurred when Harrison Barnes hit a three-pointer just two-and-a-half minutes in to put Golden State ahead, 5-4.
And goodness gracious, you would have witnessed Curry's coast-to-coast, left-handed reverse up-and-under that made Anthony Davis -- who scored 35 points but only finally realized he was, in fact, Anthony Davis far too late in the game to have any meaningful impact on its result -- look positively ordinary in transition defense. It was a moment that brought nearly 20,000 fans inside Oracle Arena to their feet, likely prompting at least one attentive U.S. Geological Survey technician to check the area's tectonic machinery.
"It was a fun little play," said Curry, either refusing to let us in on his secret or intent on hiding the fact that you can't explain random acts of greatness.
Game 1, in other words, was not a referendum on New Orleans' playoff inexperience or failure to execute some tried-and-true game plan. The Warriors won 67 of 82 games this year, 39 of 41 at home. That is a 95 percent winning percentage. The Pelicans don't get 20 chances to win one game here; they get (at most) four and now they've already blown one. Even before the ball was tipped, their win probability chart was frighteningly askew.
Yes, the Warriors almost let the game slip away in the second half, but the first-half clinic that pushed Golden State to an 18-point halftime lead was all the cushion they really needed. As a result, the final team stats were very un-Golden State: 11-of-29 from downtown (38 percent), 21-of-34 on free throws (62 percent), and a -11 point differential (33-22) in the fourth quarter. (Honestly, Curry missing three free throws in one game, something he did in all of March, was probably the most shocking result of all.)
And yet, Golden State won.
"We never had a box score like this in the regular season, but this is how it works," said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. "You do what you have to do." For Kerr, the win is all that counts and nothing much after that needs to be gummed up with hypotheticals or regrets.
For the New Orleans Pelicans, there's a looming question that is far more pressing and still agonizingly simple: How do you solve a problem like Stephen Curry?
Alas, it may have no discernible answer, especially after Curry's Game 1 imperfectly solid performance. But cracking the Curry Conundrum would only present new and potentially more futile ones. Klay Thompson (21 points, three assists), Andrew Bogut (12 points, 14 rebounds, great defense) and Draymond Green (15 points, 12 rebounds, insane defense) all present matchup issues that could, collectively, grind the Pelicans' lineup into dust. Kerr is willing to let Davis have his 35 points and seven rebounds, as he did in Game 1, but everyone else is a marked man.
"We're not worried about Davis scoring a lot of points," Kerr said afterwards. "We're worried about making sure we cover other areas." For the best defensive team in the NBA, that's not unfounded hubris.
The challenge for New Orleans in Game 2 will be much bigger: Play a better 48 minutes of offense while forcing Golden State to follow up its weirdest box score of the season with something even weirder.
Those odds aren't great, but you'd have to give them credit for trying.
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Erik Malinowski is a freelance writer in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @erikmal.