- After dismantling the Thunder, Anthony Davis reminded us who will be the best player on the floor in most Western Conference playoff series.
Entering the season as a leading MVP candidate, Anthony Davis had been relatively quiet through the season’s first 29 games before Wednesday’s matchup with the Thunder. His numbers have largely been the same. Davis entered averaging 27.4 points per game and a career-high 12.2 boards, providing his typical blend of stretch and above-the-rim destruction. But as the Pelicans sat 10th in the West at 14–15, Davis’ performance largely went unnoticed among a season of Giannis dominance, Warriors drama and LeBron relocation. Davis has been an afterthought.
That should begin to change after the Kentucky product’s 44-point, 18-rebound effort in a 118-114 win over the streaking Thunder. The five-time All-Star was in peak form against Oklahoma City. He dunked and tipped-in lobs from every conceivable angle and ran like a gazelle in transition. Steven Adams is a stout defensive center, lithe in pick-and-roll defense and sturdy at the point of attack. He was completely overmatched against Davis.
New Orleans is .500 on the season after Wednesday’s victory, one game behind Sacramento for the eight seed in the Western Conference. The West standings are fluid outside of Golden State at the top, with 14 teams (13 if you think the Kings are fools gold) fighting for eight spots. Can the Pelicans snag a second-straight playoff appearance? With Davis, they can’t be counted out.
Davis will need to stack the performances like Wednesday night to keep New Orleans in the top eight come April. Jrue Holiday has emerged as a fringe All-Star and is dogged on both ends, but the rest of the supporting cast is solid, if unspectacular. Julius Randle is a bully down low and the Nikola Mirotic-E’Twaun Moore pairing provides sufficient spacing. The defensive issues are numerous, though, with Davis’ two-way responsibility nearly unmatched throughout the league. A weeks-long cold streak from the field could doom New Orleans in the West.
The Pelicans could very well find themselves on the outside-looking-in in the West playoff picture, but if they manage to snag a playoff spot, they’ll continue to be a difficult out. A repeat of last year’s upset over the Blazers is very much in play, even if New Orleans enters below the top four seeds. Golden State is likely untouchable, but is there another West opponent who is certain to take down Davis and Co.? Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets could cede a few 40-point efforts. Davis just dismantled the Thunder. A grand performance could come at the Staples Center, either against LeBron’s Lakers or the feel-good Clippers. Davis will be the best player on the floor in most series. The Pelicans will go as far as he takes them.
Davis is on the very fringe of the MVP race through the season’s first 30 games. Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid and James have risen above the field, and a pair of Warriors should be heard from in the second half. But few players are as transformative to their teams chances on a given night as Davis, who bears a unique burden on each end. Davis carried New Orleans to its first playoff series victory since 2008 last season. To reach the playoffs this year, he’ll have to continue his performance from Wednesday night through the next four months.