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.”