O AKLAND — As a once-comfortable Warriors cushion began to get thinner and more threadbare Saturday afternoon, an unfamiliar feeling began to creep across Oracle Arena.
Coach Steve Kerr felt it. As did superstar Steph Curry and defensive whiz Draymond Green.
Instead of the usual jubilation and celebration, a genuine sense of concern was palpable among the 19,659 faithful. Call it tension, nervousness or angst. All fit.
After winning 67 regular-season games and amassing the NBA’s best record, the Warriors couldn’t possibly open the playoffs by blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter.
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No, as things turned out. Golden State prevailed 106-99. But not before the pesky Pelicans took advantage of some uncharacteristic laissez-faire defense and missed free throws by the Warriors to trim their deficit to five points in the final minute.
At no time did anyone get the sense the home team was in actual danger of losing. It just wasn’t the 48-minute display of dazzle we’ve come to expect.
With Pelicans star Anthony Davis scoring 20 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter, after the Warriors defended him fairly well till that point, New Orleans ratcheted itself back in the game.
Is that a bad thing, or a sign of trouble, for the West’s No. 1 seed? Not necessarily.
“It was good for us,” Kerr insisted. “Good for us to feel that and good for us to deal with the tension in the building — especially as the favorite.”
Close home games are something these Warriors don’t have much experience with. That’s a result of going 39-2 — tied for the second-most home wins in NBA history — and winning them by an average margin of 14.6 points.
Of course, all that gets tossed out the window now. And Saturday’s game proved that beyond any doubt.
“We’ve just got to finish the game better, but we’re not going to panic over that,” Curry said. “They’re obviously a talented team that’s going to make a couple runs here and there, but nothing is going to be easy this series.”
Early on, it sure looked like it would be.
For those watching on TV, it’s hard to describe the raucous atmosphere of a Warriors home game.
Chants of “Warriors! Warriors!” echoed throughout the arena before and after the national anthem, and continued up until moments before tip-off. When both teams assembled at center court, every yellow T-shirt wearing fan in the building stood and emptied their lungs.
“When we got out there on the court for warm-ups, just the energy was amazing,” Curry said. “I think we really fed off that.”
Curry’s shooting is his calling card, and his dazzling ball-handling elicits more “oohs” and “aahs” than a runway model. Just don’t undersell his fearlessness.
How many NBA players, with Davis closely trailing them on a fastbreak, would pull up and wait for teammates? Just about all of them.
Not Curry. Instead, the wiry 6-foot-3 guard soared past the 6-10 Davis — merely the league’s best shot blocker — switched the ball to his left hand mid-flight and flipped in a reverse layup off the tippy top of the backboard.
“I couldn’t believe the ball went in,” Kerr marveled.
“It was a fun little play,” Curry said with a grin.
Doing his best to corral Curry was Fresno native Quincy Pondexter, who guarded the MVP candidate throughout the first half.
Pondexter tried to use his 6-7, 220-pound frame to body the slighter Curry, and it worked occasionally. Mostly though, Curry used his first-step quickness to penetrate the lane with high-arcing layups.
“You’ve just got to try to bother him, get a little bit closer and not let him hit those wide open 3s,” said Pondexter, the Memorial High product who scored 20 points to go with nine rebounds and six assists.
“Try to limit those home run 3s that he hits. He hits some of them that really get the crowd going. He’s a hell of a player.”
Despite Charles Barkley’s loud insistence, the Warriors are not really a “jump shooting team.”
Teams that can only shoot jump shots do not finish second in the NBA in points in the paint — or score 50 interior points in a playoff game.
Still, the Warriors do not have a true low-post threat. As such, they are susceptible to lulls when the high-percentage shots stop falling.
New Orleans took advantage of one of those lulls to claw back into the game. And Davis, after being well-guarded by Green and Andrew Bogut during the first three quarters, erupted in the fourth when defensive fatigue began to set in.
So as the Pelicans started creeping closer, the usual din of Oracle Arena was replaced by the gnawing of fingernails.
“You go up 23 and it’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ This is what everybody expects,” Green said. “Then you’re up seven, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, oh.’ It’s not what everyone’s used to anymore, so there was a weird little tension.”
That tension is something the Warriors, and their fans, will have to get used to. After all, this isn’t the regular season.