And so it ended, not with a thud or a thunderbolt, but with a long lingering drone of air from the Warriors’ final and most fluid performance in this abbreviated Western Conference quarterfinal.
That, and another regal sweep of Stephen Curry striding over the landscape of the game like a gigantic purple cape, or as the most immediate beneficiary of his gifts, head coach Steve Kerr, puts it, “Steph being Steph.”
Such was this, the first Western Conference quarterfinal to go according to all but the most minute plans. A 109-98 victory over the game but overmatched New Orleans Pelicans, driven in different stages of the decisive first half by each of their best players, to make the Warriors the first team to get through to the conference semifinals against either the Memphis Grizzlies or the Portland Trail Blazers.
Curry was, of course, the standard model of big-game elegance, flitting through the dead spots of the game and inserting himself more forcefully when required, finishing with 39 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but Draymond Green’s 22, 10 and 8 and Klay Thompson’s 25, layered as they were in different stretches for maximum coverage, more than covered for the omnipresence of Pelican Anthony Davis, the logical inheritor of whatever it is that Curry will leave for the rest of the field.
As a whole, the three combined for 86 of Golden State’s 109 points, 21 of the 39 rebounds, and 17 of the 28 assists in a hair less than half the available minutes. In other words, they acted as favorites would, at the time when favorites are measured most harshly -– a closeout game.
Indeed, this game was Golden State’s best, and to be sure its most educational. They seemed to struggle philosophically at times with being the favorite, losing leads in Games 1 and 2, playing listlessly through extended asteetches of the first three games and having to rally frantically in Game 3.
“I think we got through the pressure of being the favorite,” Kerr said of the second- and third-quarter bursts that defined the game. “We have playoff experience, but we’ve always been the underdog. It’s not like that now. It was important for us to understand that pressure and that feeling. Tonight was our best effort of the series.”
And yet the postseason so far has adhered to form to the point where most of the survivors will have that very same feeling. A record six of the first eight series went right to 3-0 (Bulls over Bucks, Cavaliers over Celtics, Wizards over Raptors, Rockets over Mavericks, Grizzlies over Blazers, and of course this one), but the Warriors, who figured to have the easiest time of all, needed three games to get their go on. They did it three sweeps of the scythe in the first half.
It started with Green, who scored 10 of the Warriors’ first 13 points en route to a jaw-slackening 20-5-6 half that came as close to negating Davis as can be done. Indeed, Green was an absurd plus-77 for the series, meaning that the rest of the Warriors were minus-45. Even with an imperfect statistic like plus-minus, this speaks the entire Rosetta Stone catalog.
Then Curry took the baton when Green absorbed his second foul to chunk in 14 of his own before the end of the first quarter, and when that moment had passed and Curry went to the bench as per Kerr’s rotation, Thompson, who had been barely noticeable during the Green and Curry eras of this game scored 13 of his first 15 points and blocked Tyreke Evans’ shot near the end of the period to help close out a very predictable but nonetheless impressive half.
The Warriors’ defense was better (anyone not named Davis or Eric Gordon was mostly watching), the ball movement far more evident (18 assists, three turnovers top enhance 56.8 percent shooting from all sources), the general commitment was easy to find and the understanding that comes with knowing that the only thing to be done with a prone opponent is the merciless finish.
And at that, the Warriors discovered the same lesson they had dealt out to the Pelicans in Game 3. After taking an 88-67 lead after three, the Warriors flattened out and allowed New Orleans to close to within seven at 101-94 with 1:49 left. The odds of a second spectacular cratering in three nights were astronomical, and Green’s layup on a sweet pass from Curry saw to it that there would not be the same joyous close for Golden State as in Game 3.
“I think we celebrated more after the last game than tonight,” Green said, referring to the 123-119 overtime win that was punctuated by Curry’s absurdist three-pointer near the end of regulation. “Tonight we more congratulated each other and talked about getting ready for the week and the next series. Nobody was too excited about it. This wasn’t as big.”
But it was just big enough to enlighten the gentlemen on how much bigger things are about to seem.
Now if you’re looking for a single leavening issue, it is that only one team that swept an opening series in the best-of-seven first round era ever went on to win a title, and that was Miami two years ago. Moreover, the average number of games for a champion since 2003 when the format was changed to its present configuration is 23 games (out of a possible 28), and nobody has really sailed through a postseason since the Lakers did it in 1991 by winning the first three series in the minimum 11 games, losing Game 1 of the Finals to the Iverson Sixers and then sweeping the last four.
In other words, this doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. So maybe the week of rest comes as a blessing, even if it comes with the curse of potential rust.
“I’m going to Cabo, and I’m I won’t see them until Saturday,” the notoriously tan-resistant Kerr said as he and his team began the process of standing still to wait for the Grizzlies and Blazers to settle their separate differences. “I’ll just tell them to get some rest, come and work whenever they feel like it.”
Then he remembered the audience, and hastened to add, “I’m just kidding, of course.” The Warriors are playing to a growing audience with expectations and demands that surely will become oppressive as April turns to May and then, if they don’t lose the beat, June. Saturday was the first time they recognized those facts and still beat the bear.
And as is the case when the hunter becomes the hunted, there is no unknowing the feeling, or misunderstanding the new rules of engagement. Champions are made every year, and broken just as frequently, by this fact.