August 23, 2018, 3:08 pm
After dropping 47 points on 23 shots to lead the underdog New Orleans Pelicans to a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the first playoff series victory of his six-year career, a stoic Anthony Davis made it clear he was far from satisfied.
“I’m trying to build a legacy here in New Orleans,” he said, “and let people know we’re for real.”
Four months later, the Pelicans might not be any further removed from an overcrowded group of Western Conference playoff competitors than they were after advancing past the opening round of the postseason for the first time in a decade. Most of the optimism stemming from New Orleans’ surprising dominance against Portland was erased in the Conference Semifinals, where the Golden State Warriors casually dispatched of Alvin Gentry’s team in five games. No one expected Davis and company to test the defending champions, let alone beat them. Any hopeful notions otherwise were lost when DeMarcus Cousins tore his achilles in late January, robbing the basketball world of the chance to watch the Warriors bang with the league’s most talented pair of big men in recent memory.
Cousins, Golden State’s fifth All-Star, is gone for good now, and the circumstances that prompted his departure are still somewhat murky. After signing a one-year, $5.3 million deal for the full tax-payer’s mid-level exception, Cousins implied the Pelicans, who reportedly offered him a two-year contract worth $40 million in the aftermath of his injury, ultimately opted to go in a different direction.
“I’m gonna put it like this: Only me and Dell Demps know what was said on the phone that night,” he said at his introductory news conference with the Warriors. “We both know the truth. And I’ll leave it at that.”
Regardless of the real facts surrounding Cousins’ exit, it’s implicitly clear that a different truth informed New Orleans’ decision-making most. The Pelicans went 21-13 after Cousins went down, a 51-win clip extrapolated over 82 games, spurred by the league’s fastest pace and a trade at the deadline for Nikola Mirotic. More crucial: Davis averaged 25.4 minutes at center once Cousins was sidelined, according to data compiled at NBA.com/stats, an increase of more than 15 minutes per game compared to the first three-and-a-half months of the regular season.
New Orleans’ success with Davis playing the 5 close to full-time was hardly a revelation. League followers have been clamoring for him to embrace that role for years, not only creating an imminent mismatch against nearly all opposing centers, but allowing his teammates to reap the rippling rewards of that advantage. Both benefits were on full display against the Trail Blazers, with the Pelicans aggressive pick-and-roll coverage forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard‘s hands and their sweet-shooting, rim-running frontcourt almost playing the plodding Jusuf Nurkic out of the series entirely.
Mirotic and Davis posted a net rating of +11.5 during the regular season, over seven points per 100 possessions higher than Davis’ number with Cousins. For all the talk of basketball’s new-age twin towers slowly and surely coalescing before Cousins’ injury, New Orleans’ new starting frontcourt almost immediately made more of a positive impact – on both ends of the floor – than its previous one ever did. Portland, backwards as it may sound, was more equipped to handle Davis and Cousins than Mirotic and Davis. No team in the league has an answer for Davis, and putting a marksman with shooting range to 28 feet next to him maximized the extent of his strengths, while Mirotic’s superior mobility allowed the Pelicans to amp up the defensive pressure and dare the Trail Blazers’ role players to beat them.
Julius Randle, signed to a one-plus-one contract for the full mid-level exception, isn’t quite as seamless a fit next to New Orleans’ franchise player offensively. Davis’ skill set expands incrementally every season, but he’s still barely approaching his ceiling as a shooter. He shot just 33.1 percent on catch-and-shoot triples last season despite notching career-highs in makes, attempts and accuracy from beyond the arc. The strides Randle took in 2017-18 are even more impressive considering he made them without expanding his shooting range whatsoever. He attempted fewer mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers than the previous season, focusing instead on attacking overmatched defenders from the perimeter and mid post with his rare blend of power, quickness and footwork.
In theory, spacing should be hard to come by for the Pelicans when Randle and Davis play together. But there are other ways to open up the floor than dotting it with shooters, and New Orleans’ commitment to running will make exploiting them easier than it seems on the surface. Neither Davis nor Randle needs a reliable long ball to beat their man off the bounce. Only four true bigs averaged at least four drives per game last season, according to NBA.com/stats, and Davis and Randle are among them. First on that list? Cousins, who rumbled to a whopping 9.3 drives per game, more than double Randle’s second-ranked mark.
Offensively, Randle provides a similar dose of the off-dribble dynamism that made Cousins an increasingly effective partner with Davis. Both players can grab and go, make plays on short rolls, sprint to the rim in transition and attack scrambling defenses with three-to-four dribble drives in the halfcourt. They can also run inverted ball screens, goading a switch that presents either player with an even greater advantage than before.
But it’s on the other end that Davis playing the 5 looms largest. Cousins’ aversion to defending the perimeter and overall penchant for laziness shoehorned Davis into a defensive role that ignores his most natural skill: protecting the basket. It’s no coincidence that Davis led the league by contesting 7.3 shots per game from the restricted area after Mirotic arrived in New Orleans, 3.4 attempts more than he averaged prior to Cousins’ injury. Also no accident: The Pelicans allowing opponents to shoot 61.1 percent at the rim overall, fifth-best in the league, once Davis played a lion’s share of his minutes at center, a 5.1 percent dip that accounts for a significant portion of their large-scale improvement defensively.
The concept addition by subtraction is a tired cliché in sports, and doesn’t even necessarily apply to New Orleans. Randle’s signing, even if he’s in New Orleans for just a single season, could prove one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Still, from a pure talent equation, replacing Cousins with Mirotic and Randle leaves the Pelicans in the red. But what that sum doesn’t factor in is the possibility of Davis reaching heights that the presence of Cousins, by no fault of his own, would have inherently prevented.
The Pelicans have many questions to answer before establishing themselves as a surefire playoff team in a loaded Western Conference. The fallout from Rajon Rondo‘s departure could be steeper than many anticipate, and the fickle nature of health – especially for Davis and Jrue Holiday, excellent last season while finally avoiding the injury bug – affects them even more than it does their competitors. But with Davis finally entrenched at the position that’s long been his destiny, beside a pair of gifted fellow big men, there’s a better chance than ever that New Orleans makes good on the promise he made after eliminating Portland.
Are the Pelicans actually for real? Davis will give the basketball world his most definitive answer yet soon enough.
April 22, 2019, 1:49 pmJoel Embiid - F/C - Philadelphia Sixers
Joel Embiid (left knee soreness) wouldn't commit to playing in Game 5 vs. the Nets on Tuesday.
Embiid said that "We've got to keep them guessing" and it's highly likely he doesn't even know whether or not he's going to play yet. He's been a true game-time decision for the entire series and that's not going to change so stay tuned for updates closer to tip off.
Source: Keith Pompey on Twitter
April 22, 2019, 12:54 pmEd Davis - C - Brooklyn Nets
Ed Davis (ankle) is considered to be questionable going into Tuesday's Game 5 vs. the 76ers.
Davis was a big part in the Nets' Game 1 win and his rebounding could serve to help Brooklyn out a ton. They just look outmatched by Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic and Davis could provide another big man presence down low. This could be the last game of the series so Davis' status should be a big story coming into the game.
Source: Brian Lewis on Twitter
April 22, 2019, 11:52 amJeff Green - F - Washington Wizards
Jeff Green expressed that he would like to return and play for the Wizards during the 2019-2020 season.
"I would love to come back," Green said. "Great set of guys on this team. I loved playing with Brad [Beal], John [Wall]." Green was very consistent and was on a friendly contract, but the direction in which the organization wants to go remains unclear. Green may need to find a new home given the plethora of depth the Wizards have at the forward position.
Source: Chase Hughes of NBC Washington
April 22, 2019, 12:42 amRussell Westbrook - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook went 5-for-21 from the field to finish with 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two treys in Sunday's 98-111 Game 4 loss to the Blazers.
Time and again in this series, it's been evident that Damian Lillard has been playing at a higher level than Westbrook and tonight was a fine example. Lillard was able to shake off his early shooting struggles and come up big in the second half, but Westbrook was still forcing shots and appeared to be on the back foot for most of the game. He's best when he's the one taking it to his opponents. A reactive Westbrook is simply not the star the Thunder need right now, if they want to salvage any hopes of coming back in this first-round series.
April 22, 2019, 12:36 amDennis Schroder - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Dennis Schroder mirrored his 17-point performance from Friday with another 17-point game in Sunday's loss to the Blazers.
Schroder shot 6-of-12 from the field and added three rebounds, three assists, two 3s and one steal to the box score tonight. Aside from him though, the Thunder's bench was deafeningly quiet. He cannot carry the load of the second unit's scoring output by his lonesome, especially when they're faced up against a team with multiple weapons like the Blazers. For now, the Thunder can only hope he keeps this up and that the other reserves will follow suit.
April 22, 2019, 12:32 amJerami Grant - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Jerami Grant made just 4-of-10 shots from the field on Sunday to finish with 11 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three triples and two steals in 34 minutes.
Grant's impact on the defensive end has been invaluable to the Thunder in this series and it was nice to see him active on the glass tonight, especially with Steven Adams being relatively quiet on that front with seven boards while adding six points, one assist, one steal and one block. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Portland's forwards, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu outplayed and out-hustled them on both ends of the floor.
April 22, 2019, 12:27 amPaul George - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite being slowed down by turnovers and foul trouble, Paul George still managed to light up the box score in Sunday's loss to the Blazers with 32 points on 8-of-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, six assists, four 3s, one steal and one block.
George has been banged up as early as March and he's been such a trooper, powering through a bothersome shoulder to lead the Thunder in this first-round playoff series. Unfortunately, Damian Lillard and company have been far too much for OKC to handle and George's big nights have come and gone with a lack of ample support to properly contest for the win.
April 22, 2019, 12:23 amMaurice Harkless - F - Trail Blazers
Maurice Harkless had a swell two-way performance in the Blazers' 111-98 Game 4 win over the Thunder on Sunday, posting 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, adding 10 rebounds, one triple, two steals and three blocks in 34 minutes.
Harkless was mostly a non-factor in fantasy during the regular season due to injuries. He's clearly feeling much better now and is delivering for the Blazers at the right time. If he can keep up posting performances like this, the Blazers could emerge as a dark horse to upset favorites in the west.
April 22, 2019, 12:18 amAl-Farouq Aminu - F - Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu was feeling it on Sunday, hitting 4-of-9 shots from downtown to help secure a Game 4 win over the Thunder via his 19 points (7-of-16 shooting), nine rebounds, one steal and one block.
The Blazers found an extra kick from Aminu tonight thanks to his hot hand. He's capable of explosions like this from time to time but they're not very consistent, making him a tough player to bank on in playoff DFS. Enes Kanter was relatively quiet as he put up eight points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block.
April 22, 2019, 12:15 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum kept his foot on the gas pedal on Sunday, raining down five 3s on the Thunder en route to his team-high 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting, while adding four rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks.
McCollum is heating up at just the right time for the Blazers and he picked up some of the slack while Damian Lillard was struggling early in the first half. When he and multiple Blazers are able to put up full lines like this, Portland becomes a devastating opponent, even if the opposing team has name-brand superstars in the form of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.