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OAKLAND — The Warriors lost to the Pelicans 126-120 on Saturday night at Oracle Arena, falling behind 1-0 in this Western Conference first-round playoff series.

What’s that? This wasn’t really a postseason game? Well, it might as well have been one.

For one thing, it’s entirely possible that these teams will be first-round opponents in a week. The West remains a tangled mess, but New Orleans is one of the five teams most likely to face the Warriors, who have locked in the No. 2 seed. And if it isn’t the Pelicans, it will be a team that is more or less their equivalent.

The Warriors should have had some incentive Saturday night, too. Not win-or-drop-three-spots-in-the-standings-level incentive, like New Orleans had. But a reason to come out punching.

Alvin Gentry provided a clue to this motivation before the game. Gentry was Steve Kerr’s top assistant during the Warriors’ championship run in 2015. Now he’s the head coach of the Pelicans. Outside the visitors locker room about 90 minutes before tip-off, Gentry was reminded that Kerr had verbally lashed his team after a plodding loss at Indiana on Thursday, and was asked about the Warriors’ effort of late.

“I watched the (Pacers) game,” Gentry said. “It wasn’t their best effort, and I think Steve alluded to that. But I think every coach in the league could pick out games and say the same thing about their team. To me, all that does is alert guys today of what’s gonna be happening. And I think you’re gonna see a great effort from them today, so we’re gonna have to be prepared for that.”

Translation: Oh, great. If beating the defending champions on their home court weren’t enough of a challenge, they’re going to be breathing fire tonight.

And they should have been. Kerr spanked his players pretty hard in Indianapolis, calling their effort “embarrassing” and “pathetic.” At least one player, Kevin Durant, gently contradicted the coach when apprised of his comments.

With superstar Stephen Curry out for at least another week, with Kerr’s criticism ringing in their ears and with a potential first-round playoff foe on the court, the Warriors should have been breathing fire when they broke from the chute.

Instead, they were dragged up and down the court by the Pelicans in the early going, surrendering 40 points in the first quarter, a frame in which New Orleans shot 70.8 percent from the floor. And after regrouping in the middle stretches of the game, the Warriors went meekly at the end, watching as the Pelicans finished the game on a 5-1 run.

Kerr’s tone was notably different this time.

“We’re gonna be all right,” he said. “Tonight we’re playing a team that desperately needs to win. … Our season begins next week, and we know that. So I’m not disappointed with the effort.”

This was a common theme in the Warriors’ postgame commentary. For the most part, they attributed the Pelicans’ 126-point outburst to the visitors’ red-hot shooting rather than their own defensive malaise.

“Man, those guys couldn’t miss in the beginning,” guard Quinn Cook said. “(Nikola) Mirotic was hitting some contested threes. Jrue Holiday, obviously is who he is. AD (Anthony Davis). I felt like we were competing. We strung some stops together in the second and we brought it back. … We still had a chance, but those guys made shots.”

And yet there were signals that not everything was jolly on the good ship Warriors Defense on Saturday. Draymond Green, the team’s resident traffic cop, urgently lectured Cook after several Pelicans baskets; Andre Iguodala gave the young fill-in some tips, too. And during a timeout in the third quarter, Green, Kevin Durant and veteran backup David West led an animated discussion among the players.

After the game, someone asked Green was the chat was about. “That we need to play better defense,” he answered.

And Green believed they did just that.

“I think we definitely did,” he said. “And that’s why the game went the way it went. Obviously, we weren’t able to pull it out. But if you just looked at the game, whether you were watching or playing in it, it was a different competitive nature on both ends of the floor, and especially on the defensive end.”

It’s true that Saturday’s effort was a big step up from the debacle at Indiana. The Pelicans did, indeed, play well. Davis, who scored 34 points, is a freak of nature who presents matchup nightmares for any team. Mirotic was lights-out, especially early.

But there’s simply no way to characterize this game as a solid defensive performance by the Warriors.

It took the Pelicans exactly 13 seconds to open the scoring, on an easy layup by E’Twaun Moore. Mirotic was wide open for a few of those treys, and so was Rajon Rondo, who hit a couple of them in the first quarter; the Warriors basically left him alone at the arc and dared him to shoot.

The Warriors may have been working hard against the Pelicans, but their defensive liabilities — a phrase that didn’t exist in their lexicon last year — were exposed. Nick Young hit a couple of big 3-pointers for Golden State, whipping up the crowd and earning Kerr’s praise afterward. But Young was a gruesome minus-21 in plus/minus against New Orleans, because of his deep lack of interest in defense. And Cook, who has been an inspiration for the Warriors over the past month — and who scored 21 points Saturday — is a liability when the other team has the ball. Holiday and Rondo repeatedly darted past him for layups or assists.

Panic time? No, not by a long shot. The Warriors just need to survive in the first round, with Curry hoping to join them for Round 2. These guys are champions, and have been pacing themselves for months.

But can we all admit that there are real causes for concern? With Curry out, and with the Warriors having a hard time finding their groove (and keeping it) this season, one factor will dwarf all others when the postseason opens: defense. That used to be where the Warriors won games. This year, more often than not, they win despite of their defense.

With just two regular-season games left, there isn’t much time to tighten things up.

The Warriors couldn’t beat the Pelicans at home on Saturday, because they couldn’t stop them from scoring. There’s no reason, other than blind optimism, to think it will be any easier for Golden State if these same teams pair up in the first round of the playoffs. And if Kerr’s team doesn’t get back to its defensive mindset, the same will be true of the Spurs, Thunder or Timberwolves.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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