On Saturday, the New Orleans Pelicans took on the defending champion Golden State Warriors in Oakland in one of the toughest arenas to play in across the entire NBA.
Some would say that it was unfair, that other teams didn’t have to face the Warriors in Oracle Arena, at nearly full strength. Some would say that the odds were against them. The Pelicans, channeling their inner Han Solo, said to not tell them the odds, and they emerged victorious.
The city of New Orleans rejoiced! Many were calling it the biggest win for the franchise since the 2015 squad clinched a playoff berth with a victory over the Spurs in that season’s last regular season game.
Speaking of clinching playoff spots, the Pelicans did just that on Monday night with a blowout win against the Clippers, as they’ll now join the fun of the postseason for the first time since that 2015 season. Once again, the Big Easy is rejoicing, and justifiably so. No matter what happens in this season’s final regular season showdown with the Spurs on Wednesday, this team has locked up both a playoff spot and the highest win total since 2009, when the Pelicans were the Hornets and New Orleans’s All-Star was Chris Paul. That is significant.
But if we’re talking about significant things, then is Saturday’s win in Oakland already being pushed behind the narrative of the Pelicans’ playoff push? Momentous occasions can easily get lost in the final stretch of this season that’s full of significant games, especially with the NBA’s Western Conference as chaotic as ever. However, the ramifications and feelings from that game need to be highlighted.
Why was the win so significant? Certainly one win out of an 82-game season can’t get a team into the playoffs, but it sure can improve a team’s confidence going into them. This is Anthony Davis’s sixth year in the league. Since he was drafted in 2012, New Orleans has played 26 games against the Warriors, including the sweep in the 2015 playoffs. The Pelicans have won just two of those 26 games. One of those wins came last Saturday, April 7, in what was one of the best wins in the franchise. The other win occurred, eerily enough, April 7 in the 2015 season.
Let’s flash back to that 2015 win for a second. Just three years ago, the team was wildly different. All that remains from that roster is Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Alexis Ajinca. The Warriors, despite their win total climbing into the high 60s, were also different. They were still new and fresh, well-liked, it was a time before they lifted up any championship trophies, and Kevin Durant still had a few seasons before he joined to form the near-infamous, oft-hated “superteam” from the last two seasons.
One thing is still similar today, however, and that is that Golden State still was respected, maybe even feared, and a match-up with them would create a playoff atmosphere in almost any arena. That was, at least, the atmosphere in the Smoothie King Center three years ago, where the crowd felt more alive than ever, and every Davis dunk and three-pointer by Quincy Pondexter (he had four makes on four attempts!) energized them even more.
The feeling about today’s team is similar, and it’s one of hope, made possible by performances like Saturday’s triumph in a hostile environment that have helped to return this team to relevancy.
Of course, one win, even against an all-time team like the Warriors, isn’t enough to guarantee playoff success, but it gives a glimpse into what this Pelicans team *can* do once it arrives in the postseason. I could point to stats, like how the “new Big Three” of Davis, Holiday, and Nikola Mirotic all had 20+ points in the win, or I could insert some clips of how well the offense moved, or of some of the game-saving plays by the defense, but the most important part of the win may be that this Pelicans team went into Oakland unafraid and confident that they could get the win. A few weeks ago, I tried to explain how this team has seemed to gain a winning mindset this season, and how that can translate to success in clutch situations and the playoffs, but the team’s floor general Rajon Rondo put it shortly, much better than I could:
Rajon Rondo on potential of #Pelicans in playoffs: “I think if we come in with the right focus, the right mindset – obviously you’ve got to make some shots – we can beat anyone. We know that as a team.”
— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) April 10, 2018
That truly seems to be the Pelicans mindset this season, consistently having to battle through adversity but frequently winning that battle, no matter if the adversity comes in the form of three games in three days, the loss of a superstar player or the team’s beloved owner, or a test against the league’s defending champions on their home court.
Also, at this point, any excuses are out the window. Steph Curry is arguably the most important player on the Warriors, and his team definitely looks different without him, but Golden State still has three All-Stars, including a former league MVP in Durant. Especially with the Pelicans missing their own star in DeMarcus Cousins, a win against the Warriors is still quite a feat for any team, even the league-best Rockets, who have certainly cherished their two wins against the Warriors this season.
The Pelicans are in the playoffs now and are seemingly back to being nationally relevant. On Monday night’s ESPN broadcast, Mark Jackson stated that the next step for Anthony Davis’s superstar career is simply playoff success. And while a change in mindset and talented roster isn’t enough to guarantee any sort of success in the postseason, look no further than Saturday’s defeat of the Warriors as to why it shouldn’t be a surprise should it happen.