Are AD and the surging Pelicans a real threat to the Warriors?

The New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the opening round of the NBA playoffs, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers 4-0 behind dominant performances at both ends by Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday and key contributions from role players Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo.

Now, the task gets much more difficult for the Pelicans, who will face the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Even if Stephen Curry misses part of the series -- he's questionable to play in Saturday's Game 1 -- the Warriors present a more formidable challenge than the Blazers, whose defense collapsed under the strain created by Davis' athleticism and New Orleans' shooting.

So can the Pelicans translate their first-round success into this matchup and put a scare into or even knock off Golden State?

Meaning of the first round


First, let's ponder the question of how much predictive power a strong opening series has had in the past. New Orleans outscored Portland by 9.0 points per game during the sweep. Adding in the Blazers' plus-2.6 point differential during the regular season, we'd estimate that the Pelicans played 11.6 points per game better than a league-average team in the first round -- far better than New Orleans' own plus-1.3 differential in the regular season.

Relative to regular-season performance, the Pelicans' improvement in the first round was among the largest leaps since those series became a best-of-seven format in 2003.

These teams represent a mix of lower seeds like New Orleans that comfortably beat higher-seeded opponents and higher seeds that dominated their first-round matchup. Let's home in on the group of teams that pulled upsets and consider how they performed in subsequent series.

Of the eight other teams since 2003 that have most outperformed expectations in the first round as a lower seed, only one of them -- the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies -- went on to pull another upset in the second round. The Grizzlies took advantage of the Oklahoma City Thunder's playing without an injured Russell Westbrook to reach the conference finals as the fifth seed, where they were promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

More generally, if we look at all second-round series since 2003, regular-season performance is a better predictor of how a team will play in the second round (adjusted for opponent) than how well the team played in the first round. The best predictor of second-round performance weights regular-season point differential more than three times as heavily as adjusted rating in the first round.

So while there is some predictive value to how well a team performed in the previous series, for the most part surprising success does not carry over. Whether that's because teams took advantage of favorable matchups or got fortunate in short series, they'll tend to play more like they did in the regular season going forward.

That's bad news for the Pelicans. No team with such a weak point differential has reached the conference finals since the eighth-seeded New York Knicks did so after the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

Did New Orleans find the right combination?


Fans might rightfully protest that this isn't the same team the Pelicans put on the floor most of the regular season. After all, New Orleans played 48 games with DeMarcus Cousins before he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture, and just 30 with Mirotic after a midseason trade.

In games Mirotic played, the Pelicans outscored opponents by 3.8 points per game, as compared to a plus-0.4 point differential with Cousins in the lineup. And New Orleans has played at a higher level since Mirotic moved into the starting lineup with five games left in the regular season, going 9-0 and outscoring opponents by an incredible 14.0 points per game in that span.

Having shorn his beard, Mirotic has averaged 22.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game as a starter for the Pelicans, making a sizzling 67 percent of his 2-point attempts and 44 percent of his 3s for a .703 true shooting percentage, which would have led the NBA this season. (Stephen Curry's .675 mark made him the league's most efficient scorer.)

To some extent, it's logical that playing more frequently with Davis as a starter would benefit Mirotic. But even when he was coming off the bench, Mirotic played more than 60 percent of his minutes next to Davis, per NBA Advanced Stats -- and actually shot better when Davis was on the bench. That was surely a fluke, as Mirotic's nine-game hot streak likely is too, rather than a reverse of the biblical story of Samson where Mirotic's beard was holding him back.

Notably, New Orleans' shot quality hasn't rated any better over the past nine games based on Second Spectrum's quantified shot quality (qSQ) metric, which measures the effective field goal percentage (eFG) we'd expect from an average player based on a shot's location, type and nearby defenders. The Pelicans' 52.5 percent qSQ ranked third during the regular season, when New Orleans actually posted a 54.1 percent eFG. Over the past nine games, the Pelicans' qSQ is down slightly to 52.4 percent, but their eFG has improved to 58.1 percent -- best among playoff teams.

Assessing New Orleans' chances against the Warriors based on regular-season point differential would be a mistake. We now have a reasonable sample of games with Mirotic on the roster and Davis primarily playing center that suggests the Pelicans are at least four points per game better than an average team rather than their plus-1.3 differential.

Still, New Orleans is going to have to maintain something like its first-round level of play to beat Golden State -- even if Curry misses time. As impressive as the Pelicans were in sweeping Portland, the Warriors actually had a nearly identical adjusted point differential in their 4-1 series victory over the San Antonio Spurs without Curry, rating 11.7 points per game better than an average team.

So the odds are that New Orleans' run, like those of most past teams that pulled first-round upsets, will fall short of the conference finals.

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