MILWAUKEE -- As the buzzer sounded Thursday night, Anthony Davis stood underneath the basket across from the visitors bench and vigorously shook his head in apparent disbelief.
Davis, the NBA’s third-leading scorer, had again done his part, finishing with a well-fed line of 32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists. But unlike his first eight games of the 2016-17 season -- almost all of which went down to the wire and all of which ended in losses -- his prodigious efforts had not gone to waste.
“It was just -- about time,” Davis said after sweating out a 112-106 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pelicans’ first of the season. “That’s really it. Just happy to get one. So many games that we were close in, we just weren’t able to pull them off. We were able to pull this one off, so -- it’s about time.”
After a loss in San Antonio, Solomon Hill’s passionate baritone boomed through the walls. This time around, the walls of the visiting locker room crackled as enough clapping to carry a parade route poured through.
The relief after two weeks of winless basketball was palpable.
“Hell yeah,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Of course it was relief. Are you kidding me? We’re 0-8 and fighting for our lives. Everything that we’ve done in some kind of way has kind of gone bad, and to be able to finish the game and to come away with a win, yeah, it’s relief. I’m not gonna sit here and go, ‘Oh, yeah. It was just another game.’ It was huge relief for us.”
Naturally, it didn’t come easy.
Up 15 at one point in the third quarter -- their biggest lead to date -- the Pelicans’ advantage dwindled in the fourth as the Bucks’ blitz on the paint began to overwhelm their small-ball look. The Bucks, who finished with 46 points in the paint, grabbed a combined five offensive rebounds -- including two on tip-outs by the spidery Giannis Antetokounmpo -- over consecutive possessions to narrow the lead to three with 40 seconds left.
“I don’t know if we worried,” Pelicans guard Tim Frazier said, “but you’re like, ‘Man, we gotta get those boards.”
The Pelicans seemed to be holding on for dear life, yet they never let go. Matthew Dellavedova missed the second of two free throws with 15 seconds to play, Davis corralled the rebound and New Orleans never looked back.
“I think the whole team, I think all of us, we were [like], ‘We can’t lose this one,” Frazier said. “We bit down and grinded it out.”
Said Davis: “Some of them were bad bounces, some of them we just didn’t get. We didn’t get rattled. We just stayed composed, stayed poised and just went down there and executed on the offensive end.”
It helped to have, well, help. Frazier drilled his first two shots -- both 3-pointers -- en route to his fourth double-double (15 points, 10 assists, plus 5 rebounds) of the season. Omer Asik (eight points, six rebounds) again provided the necessary heft in the paint when called upon. Hill, relegated to the bench in favor of a Dante Cunningham-Terrence Jones-Davis front line, had his best offensive game to date (8 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists).
No performance, however, was bigger than that of E'Twaun Moore, who scored 14 of his 20 points during a third quarter in which he shot 5-for-5 from the field to provide the Pelicans the sort of secondary option the team has lacked with both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans out to start the season.
“He got hot,” Frazier said. “As a point guard, you’re going to keep running the same plays if you find a guy hot. We ran the same play a couple times, and he got hot.”
The same formula the Pelicans cooked up in order to hang on as they wait for core players to return was still present. The Pelicans came into the game ranked 23rd in the NBA in field goal percentage, but if you removed Davis (50.9), their 41 percent would rank dead last. On Thursday, Davis shot 48 percent from the field while the rest of the Pelicans shot 42 percent.
But a team with an admitted razor-thin margin for error finally executed enough -- the Pelicans shot a respectable 36 percent from 3-point range, had but one fewer rebound and one fewer turnover than the Bucks, shot 93 percent from the foul line (25-for-27) -- to outlast a team ranked 20th in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
“Previous games, we had a lead or we was down two points and we didn’t make enough plays at the end of the game,” Moore said. “We were just like, 'We gotta find a way, find a way,' and we came up with enough plays to get the victory.”
One win won’t dig the Pelicans out of the bottom of the Western Conference. But considering all that came before, including the disappointing season that preceded this one, any step in the right direction will be welcomed with open arms.
“For us, a win is a win,” Gentry said. “I’m not going to look at anything negative about it. I can do that tomorrow or some other time. But right now, just to have a win -- because those guys have worked so hard in there. They deserve to win. The way they worked and the way they’ve kind of hung together, just stayed and kind of stuck it out and fought, they deserve this. I’m happy for our players as much as anything.”