One team was supposed to be here all along. The other was two regular-season losses away from missing the playoffs and setting into motion a major overhaul that likely would have included firing its coach and front office, and possibly would have stretched into a trade involving one of the league’s best players.
But the stunning sweep of Portland by the Pelicans earned them a spot in the conference semifinals for the first time in a decade. (They were called the Hornets then, making this the first time in league history that a team named for a genus of large, migratory water birds has reached any conference semifinal.)
It surely saved the job of head coach Alvin Gentry, and likely the job of GM Dell Demps, too. That means teams anticipating a Pels fire sale can cross off Anthony Davis from their wish lists.
Less stunning was the downing of the Spurs by the Warriors, who were without star guard Stephen Curry and will be without him for at least the opening of this series. There was little dropoff without Curry, though, as the Warriors defense — which had been a question mark coming in — kicked into gear against San Antonio, holding the Spurs to 96.8 points per game.
The offense was buoyed, naturally, by Klay Thompson (22.6 points per game, 51.6 percent on 3-pointers) and Kevin Durant (28.2 points per game).
The Pelicans, led by Davis’ 33.0 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in the Portland series, have looked like a different team lately, cohesive defensively and surprisingly explosive on offense. They’ve won nine straight going back to the regular season, and have scored 118.2 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 39.6 percent from the 3-point line in those nine games.
Different would certainly be good from the New Orleans perspective — going back to 2013, including the playoffs, the Warriors have beaten the Pelicans in 24 of 26 games.
The key player
The Pelicans were pretty much a four-man operation against the Blazers, with Davis being backed by a consistent offensive performance from Nikola Mirotic and the rise-to-the-occasion playoff performance of point guard Rajon Rondo.
But the difference in the series against Portland was Jrue Holiday, who not only scored 27.8 points per game with 6.0 assists, shooting 56.8 percent from the field, but also locked down Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard on the defensive end.
Holiday will have a tougher go of things against Golden State and Klay Thompson, one of the best two-way guards in the league. Without Curry, Holiday has a better shot at keeping up with Thompson, but it will be no easy task — the Pelicans can’t offer much help to Holiday because they have to cope with Durant.
The big number
12. Get Rondo to 12 assists, and the Pelicans win — almost always, at least.
This season, including two wins over Portland, New Orleans has gone 15-2 when Rondo tops 12 assists. As a team, the Pelicans are 22-6 when they log 29 or more assists.
On the flip side, the Warriors allowed just 19.8 assists per game to the Spurs in their opening-round series.
Warriors vs. Pelicans: The prediction
The Pelicans are one of the really good stories to come out of the first round of the playoffs, and for a team that has had such bum luck in the last few years, it’s good to see things finally go their way.
But good first-round stories usually die in the semifinals, and even without Curry, the Warriors have way more depth and far better options than New Orleans.