Never count out the Golden State Warriors. Down 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter and 17 with 6:00 remaining in regulation, the Warriors fought back to tie the New Orleans Pelicans in the final seconds to send Game 3 of their first-round series to overtime. Golden State continued its strong play in the opening minutes of the extra period and held on during a late New Orleans push to come away with a shocking 123-119 win at the Smoothie King Center, opening up a 3-0 lead in the series. Given the form of this loss, it's an open question as to how much energy or will the Pelicans can muster when they face elimination in Saturday's Game 4.
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The marquee moment of the game took place on the Warriors' final possession of regulation. Anthony Davis split a pair of free throws with nine seconds remaining to give the Pelicans a 108-105 lead, or small enough to give the Warriors a chance at the tie.
In case you haven't heard, the Warriors have a guy who hits a lot of 3-pointers, so they gave the ball to likely NBA MVP Stephen Curry. He missed the first attempt with a foot on the line — despite Pelicans head coach Monty Williams's curious postgame comment that he told his players to foul before the shot — but an offensive rebound by Marreese Speights offered Curry another chance. He did not disappoint:
As if the game-tying shot weren't dramatic enough, Curry very easily could have gotten a chance at a four-point play after serious contact from Davis and Tyreke Evans:
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) April 24, 2015
Tyreke Evans missed a 25-foot prayer at the buzzer, and the teams headed to overtime with the Warriors seemingly carrying all the momentum.
Golden State appeared to keep control for the first few minutes of the extra period, opening up the scoring with a Curry three, getting another triple from Harrison Barnes with 3:09 remaining (their first of the game not by Curry or Klay Thompson), and getting enough contributions to build a 119-113 lead with 1:51 remaining. But that's when the Pelicans came back to life, getting a lay-in from Tyreke Evans on the next possession and a 3-pointer from the red-hot Ryan Anderson (26 points on 10-of-14 FG) to make it a one-point game. That score held until the final moments, when Curry hit two free throws with 13 seconds remaining to give the Pelicans one last chance at a tie.
That's when things got really weird. Referee Scott Foster whistled Thompson for an off-ball foul on Davis with 10 seconds left, which gave the Pelicans a free throw and the ball because of rules intended to deter Hack-a-[insert poor-shooting player here] tactics. (Thompson definitely initiated contact, but there's a reason you don't see this call very often in big moments like this one.) Davis knocked down the freebie, which made the score 121-119 and gave the Pelicans a chance to tie or win. With Draymond Green having fouled out at the 36-second mark, the Warriors put Andrew Bogut on Davis. He locked up the Pelicans star to clinch the Warriors win:
OK, so that's how the Warriors won. But the most fascinating part of Game 3 was that they even managed to turn it into a competitive result. The Pelicans dominated this game for three quarters and change, to the point where the chief issue at play in the fourth quarter seemed to be if the best players would play long enough to make it the Warriors' worst loss of the season. Golden State looked completely overwhelmed as New Orleans executed extremely well at both ends in the franchise's first playoff home game since 2011.
The Warriors jumped out to an early lead after hitting their first five 3-pointers, but it disappeared by the end of the first quarter thanks to a late spurt from the Pelicans. That surge continued into the second quarter and ended up as a 19-0 run over roughly 5:30, turning a five-point deficit into a 39-25 lead.
The Warriors had some mini-runs later in the second but still headed into the halftime break at a 63-50 disadvantage, close enough to imagine getting back into the game quickly but absolutely a meaningful gap. With the Pelicans shooting 59.6 percent from the field with excellent offensive execution (15 assists vs. four turnovers), it was easy to imagine a regression to the mean and improvements for the Warriors that could close the gap.
Golden State looked to be on its way to a comeback with a quick 3-pointer from Thompson, who was easily the team's most impressive player at this point, and a few glaring-but-effective flops from Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Yet the Pelicans showed resolve by getting back to what they were doing best at both ends and only added to their lead to head into the fourth with a well-deserved 89-69 advantage.
It is hard to oversell how well the Pelicans played over the first three quarters. Davis was every bit the superstar with terrific play at both ends, serving as the offense's linchpin and terrorizing the Warriors on defense, especially at the rim and by disrupting Curry's typically open transition three opportunities. But it was far from a one-man show — Davis was part of a competent five-man team for possibly the first time all series, with several other players stepping up. Norris Cole was spectacular off the bench (14 of an eventual 16 points in the first half) and Tyreke Evans served as a quality second scorer. The Pelicans also played with a combination of energy and awareness they often lacked in the series' first two games, flying to the right spots on the floor with purpose. It was impressive enough to suggest that the Pelicans could make this a series instead of just winning one game.
Then everything went terribly, terribly wrong. Anderson did his best Dirk Nowitzki impression through the first six minutes of the fourth quarter to make the score 101-84 with 6:01 remaining in regulation, and the Pelicans appeared headed for a comfortable win. They proceeded to commit a litany of mistakes, many mental, on their way to blowing the lead and eventually the game. The most problematic area was clearly the glass, where the Warriors picked up 10 offensive rebounds (often several on the same possession) in the quarter to get extra opportunities on relatively unexceptional shooting. It helped that Draymond Green bounced back from his worst game of the series to frustrate the Pelicans at both ends, primarily in a small lineup that had him and Davis matched up as nominal centers.
Yet, while the Warriors played well, a team does not lose a 17-point lead in six minutes just because the opponent gets better. At times it looked as if the Pelicans simply forgot to rebound — through some combination of fatigue and error, they were slow to nearly every carom. For the second straight game, Davis appeared to lose something in the final period after contributing so much in heavy minutes. It's hard to say that the Pelicans should rest him more — he's essential to everything this team does — but it's not a coincidence that the team has struggled when he loses steam.
On the other hand, this was a game in which the Pelicans had other quality options. Proper shot distribution has been an issue for this team late in games all season, to the point where it's fair to wonder if it's a product of institutional negligence rather than individual decision-making. Davis and Anderson saw little of the ball when the Warriors made their comeback, and New Orleans looked unsure of the best course of action in several key moments. The Pelicans' next tape sessions should be tough viewing for coaches and players alike.
However, it's fair to say that most teams are incapable of erasing such large deficits under any circumstances. The Warriors won this game even if the Pelicans also lost it, and they deserve the bulk of the credit for this result. This comeback was not about players getting hot — most of their buckets came at the line or in the paint after offensive boards. Curry's 3-pointers were the biggest highlights, but the Warriors largely took this game by out-working the Pelicans in winning time. Their full-game stats were not very impressive (40.4 percent shooting, 1 of 11 from deep for players not named Curry and Thompson), and Curry's game-high 40 points required a lot of attempts (10-of-29 FG, 7-of-18 3FG to tie a playoff record for attempts, 13-of-14 FT).
Rather, the most remarkable thing about the win was the Warriors' resilience, a quality that a 67-win squad that could often rest its stars for the fourth quarter had not displayed much this season. After a relatively ugly win in Game 2 and this hardnosed comeback, the Warriors have hopefully killed the idea that they're a finesse squad dependent on hot shooting. For a squad with no championship experience, they have already displayed many of the traits we expect of title teams.
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