NEW ORLEANS – The 1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors were a hunted team in 1976 – one that failed to repeat as they were upset by the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.
No one on the Warriors' current roster was even close to being born then.
But now, 39 years later, today's Warriors are fighting in new territory as the NBA's most hunted team after winning a league-best 67 games. While Golden State passed its first test by completing a sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round on Saturday, they believe the tougher-than-it-looked first-round series offered some lessons that will help them to deal with the unfamiliar bull's-eye.
"We learned about just feeling the pressure both at home and on the road," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "We had the best record. This team has playoff experiences the past two years as an underdog. I think it's easier as an underdog because you just come out and play loose. The favorite is a little different feeling."
The Warriors earned their first four-game sweep in a playoff series since winning that 1975 NBA championship. Stephen Curry paced the Warriors by averaging 33.7 points per game and hitting a key late 3-pointer that sparked an overtime win in Game 3. Curry says getting the first taste of being the hunted in the first round felt the same as it did in the regular-season.
Curry added that the key to the Warriors' first-round success was confidence. Golden State completed its sweep with a 109-98 victory over the Pelicans in Game 4.
"Tonight was a little bit different because you had the pressure to close out the series," Curry told Yahoo Sports. "We had a huge 3-0 lead and you want to make it as easy on yourselves as possible. As long as defense travels every night we will be fine. I think that showed tonight."
The Warriors won a franchise-record 39 home games during the regular-season. Only the 1985-86 Boston Celtics won more home games in NBA history with 40. The Warriors were tested in the first two home playoff games against the Pelicans, but prevailed by a winning margin of seven points and 10 points, respectively.
Kerr believes the Warriors gained valuable experience about the pressure of playing at Oracle Arena in the postseason after being so dominant in the regular-season.
"Both home games we felt a lot of pressure. [The Pelicans] out-played us in several segments of each game. Our guys had to respond and that was good," Kerr said.
The Warriors also learned from overcoming two types of adversity in games on the road.
The Warriors were down by 20 points entering the fourth quarter in Game 3 last Thursday at Smoothie King Center. But Golden State fought back by scoring 39 points in the fourth that ended with a game-tying 3-pointer by Curry in the final seconds. The Warriors went on to win Game 3 by four points, 123-119, in overtime.
The Warriors were up 88-67 entering the fourth quarter in Game 4 after outscoring New Orleans 23-13 in the third quarter. The Pelicans began the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run to wake up the crowd and make a late run at keeping the series alive. But Golden State ended up holding on to the win despite being outscored 31-21 in the fourth.
Kerr said the Warriors didn't take being up 21 for granted entering the fourth since they overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth a game earlier.
"To come on the road and win two is really an accomplishment. It's something we can build on," Kerr said.
Curry also said the Warriors learned the importance of getting off to strong starts against New Orleans.
The Warriors were up 28-13 in the first quarter of Game 1 and were up by as many as 25 before holding on to a 106-99 win. The Warriors were down 28-17 in Game 2 after the first quarter and were down by as many as 13 points before coming back for a 97-87 win. Golden State was also up 31-24 at the end of the first quarter in Game 1 and up by as many as 24 points before winning.
"How we start games is important, especially on the offensive end," Curry said. "We can't win a game in the first three to six minutes. You just have to stick to who we are, move the basketball and get the best shot. Really establish yourself and not get out of whack when it comes to make the home-run play immediately as we start games. That's a huge deal, especially on the road.
Another valuable lesson learned by these Warriors is winning early – it means plenty for the rounds to come.
The Warriors were expected to return to the Bay Area from New Orleans on their charter jet at round 2 a.m. PST. Golden State will play a second-round playoff series against either the Memphis Grizzlies or Portland Trail Blazers beginning next weekend at earliest. The Warriors had a 2-1 season series record against the West's fifth-seed Grizzlies. The Warriors had a 3-0 season series record against the Blazers.
The Warriors will also host the first two games of the second-round series, which extends their stay at home even further. Kerr joked that he will be vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, during the layoff. Reality has the Warriors getting back to work in preparation for the second round with practice on Monday in Oakland, Calif.
"I went through this as a player quite often where you have a long extended break," Kerr said. "There is a mix of rest and reps. You have to keep your conditioning, but you have to get your rest as well. We will figure it out on the flight back."
The Warriors players were very ecstatic about the reward of rest that comes from the sweep of the Pelicans.
"I'm proud of the way we played and the way we competed," Curry said. "[Going] 4-0 is a good feeling. Now we can rest up, figure out who we play and keep it moving."
Said Warriors center Andrew Bogut: "We're on to the next round now, and it's a bit of an advantage to get some rest. We just have to make sure we don't get too much rest."