After routing the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors 119-100 on Friday night at the Smoothie King Center to cut their Western Conference semifinal series deficit to 2-1, the Pelicans enter Game 4 on Sunday looking to get even and make it a best-of-three series.
Everything worked to perfection for the Pelicans on Friday night.
They played suffocating defense and hounded Warriors guard Stephen Curry, perhaps a bit tired in his second game back from a five-week rehab of his strained left knee, into a quiet 19-point shooting night; guard Rajon Rondo dished out a franchise-playoff-record 21 assists and pushed the pace as the Pelicans built a 25-point lead; and forward Anthony Davis scored 33 points by using an array of inside and outside moves to keep the Warriors on their heels.
New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Davis was so confident the Pelicans would prevail that he guaranteed the victory during a second-half timeout. Fresh in Davis’ mind had to be Game 3 in the 2015 playoffs against the Warriors when teh Pelicans blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime.
The Pelicans, then a vastly different team, were swept in four games by Golden State. Davis said that was not happening again.
“I think about that all the time,” Davis said. “We were up 20 going into the fourth and then they come back and won it in overtime. It was tough for us. That was the message — we can’t lose this game. It’s always tough to come back from 0-3. Our mindset is to go out there, play and do what we’re supposed to do from all the game planning. Whatever results happen, happen.”
Game 4 should prove to be more than a battle of game plans. Rondo and Warriors forward Draymond Green have come face-to-face several times and verbally confronted each other, but neither has crossed the line and picked up a technical foul.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that might be considered a minor miracle for Green, known for his quick trigger.
“It’s one of the great stats of this year’s playoffs,” Kerr said, referring to Green’s technical-free play.
During Game 3, a camera caught Rondo appearing to extend a foot and trip Green 50 feet away from the action on the other side of the court. It seemed like a case of Rondo, a veteran point guard, trying to goad Green into retaliating.
“I’m not an idiot,” Green said. “I see what they’re trying to accomplish a mile away.”
“It’s kind of just how I am,” Rondo said, referring to his street-wise competitiveness. “I don’t know if that’s really trying to set an example. It’s just guys talking trash on the other team — it’s kind of just natural for me to respond. Not in a crazy way or anything, just let them know we’re not a pushover. We’re here to fight, and with my guys on the court, I’m going to fight as hard (as) I can for these guys — whatever it takes.”
Rondo’s aggressiveness seems to have lit a fire under the Pelicans. While Davis and guard Jrue Holiday have been the go-to performers for New Orleans, guard E’Twaun Moore, forward Nikola Mirotic and reserves Ian Clark and Solomon Hill came up big in Game 3.
The Pelicans had 36 assists, their fourth-highest total in any game this season. Rondo was the third player in NBA history — John Stockton and Magic Johnson are the others — with multiple 20-assist games.
“We need that energy,” Mirotic said of Rondo. “He was everywhere. He was on defense, offense, talking, communicating with us. He’s just huge when the playoffs start. He’s been terrific.”
The Warriors realize the Pelicans are not the 2015 team they steamrolled.
“Obviously, (Game 3) was no fun,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “They did whatever they wanted. … We have to come back on Sunday and make them more uncomfortable, because they were way too comfortable.”