Anthony Davis's Long-Awaited Breakthrough Plunges Portland Into Identity Crisis

Anthony Davis got his long-awaited playoff breakthrough as his Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs.
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Anthony Davis executed a clean sweep on Saturday, shaking off a reputational knock that has followed him for years, rewriting the Pelicans’ playoff record books and dumping the Blazers in emphatic fashion.

New Orleans defeated Portland 131-123 in Game 4 at the Smoothie King Center on Saturday, eliminating the West’s three seed and setting up a likely second-round date with Golden State.

Considering the stakes, Davis turned in the game of his life, scoring 47 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots to lead the Pelicans to their first playoff series victory since 2008. Portland had no answer for the Pelicans’ do-everything All-Star: Davis threw down lob dunks, drew foul after foul and hit two threes as he set a franchise record for points in a playoff game. His 47 points also marked the most scored by any player in the 2018 playoffs, eclipsing LeBron James’s 46.

“This has probably been the best game [Davis] has played since I’ve been here,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “He just wasn’t going to let us lose tonight.”

This wasn’t just a scoring explosion, it was a career breakthrough. At 25, Davis has spent multiple years as the “Best player in the NBA to never win a playoff series.” Prior to this year, he had made the playoffs just once in five tries, and he had failed to win a single game in his only postseason appearance thanks to a sweep by the Warriors in 2015.

This year, it was Davis’s turn to send an opponent home early. The Blazers never came close to finding an effective strategy to stop him: Davis was simply too long, too quick, too versatile and too relentless. He averaged 30 PPG, 12 RPG and 2.8 BPG for the series, shot 47 FG% and posted a +43 in 155 minutes. Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo set the table for him and he took care of the rest.

“I’m trying to build a legacy here in New Orleans and let people know we’re for real,” Davis said.

It’s no coincidence that Davis’s career leap came at the exact moment that Holiday turned in the best stretch of his own career. Dogged by injuries and off-court family concerns for much of his five-year tenure in New Orleans, the 27-year-old guard badly outplayed Damian Lillard, Portland’s All-Star and MVP candidate, throughout the series.

In Game 4, Holiday scored 41 points, marking a personal playoff career-high and the second-highest total in Pelicans history (behind Davis). Together, Davis and Holiday joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the only pair of players to score 40 points in the same playoff game since 2001.  

“It’s nothing but a blessing,” Holiday said afterward. “Everything we’ve gone through this season, from big injuries to trades and all that. … They were sleeping on us, everybody counted us out and being here right now feels pretty good.”

The Power of Jrue Holiday

As New Orleans plots its likely matchup with Golden State, who can sweep San Antonio with a Game 4 win on Sunday, Portland owner Paul Allen must weigh a possible shakeup. The Blazers looked disjointed and often demoralized against the Pelicans, and there were few silver linings. Lillard and C.J. McCollum didn’t play like stars, starting center Jusuf Nurkic struggled to stay on the court and high-priced supporting players like Evan Turner, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard had little to no impact.

While GM Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts have been to the playoffs for five straight seasons, there’s no spinning this defeat. Portland’s salary-cap situation is dire, Nurkic is set to be a free agent and the talent around Lillard and McCollum continues to be middling. This wasn’t a garden-variety first-round loss, but a thorough defeat in which the Blazers were outcoached and outplayed. The temptation for Allen to shake things up will be strong.     

Perhaps that’s the real mark of Davis’s ascension. For years, he seemed paralyzed in purgatory, fighting unwinnable battles by himself. The roles are reversed now, as he just plunged a helpless opponent into a full-blown identity crisis.