NEW ORLEANS -- Two hours before tipoff in downtown New Orleans, a twenty-something Uber driver tapped the requested destination into his iPhone app and reflexively asked, “So, what’s going on at the Smoothie King Center tonight?”
The series between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans mercifully came to a close on Saturday night, but to many native New Orleaneans, the season ended two days ago. That’s when Stephen Curry’s impossible, last-second 3-pointer slapped through the bottom of the net and seemed to squeeze the last bits of life from of the Pelicans’ long season. The driver, a self-described lifelong sports fan from New Orleans, was embarrassed once he heard the answer to his question. Of course, the Pelicans’ Game 4.
How could he forget?
Or better yet, how should he remember? How should the city remember this season?
The optimist says forget the sweep. Instead, remember that this was the year of Anthony Davis, delivered as promised. In Game 4, the 22-year-old was masterful once again, throttling the Warriors backline with 36 points and 11 rebounds on 14-of-20 shooting. For the series, the Pelicans’ 2013 No. 1 overall pick averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in his postseason debut.
After losing 109-98, Davis untucked his jersey one last time this season before sharing a moment with opposing coach Steve Kerr on the sideline.
“I am really glad not to have to go against you anymore,” Kerr recalled saying to the Pelicans big man.
The optimistic Pelicans fan says forget the collapse in Game 3. Instead, remember the glory after Game 82, the regular-season finale in which the Pelicans needed to beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to punch a playoff ticket. And punch that ticket they did after being 3.5 games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder exactly a month ago. Remember the confetti that followed, the long hugs with family and friends, the silencing of the doubters.
The optimist says forget about the occasional lack of poise. Instead, remember they got this far without the benefit of a veteran presence on the team, not a single player on the roster older than 30 years old. Hold on to the fact that Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday battled injuries all season and fought admirably to the end.
But the pessimist lingers. The Pelicans might be a one-man team with a head coach who might be unfit to lead Davis to a championship one day. Forget that the Pelicans reached the playoffs and remember that they probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for a faulty bone in Kevin Durant’s foot.
The pessimist will also point out that Davis, who is eligible for a five-year extension this summer, might not like what he sees upstairs. Two months ago, the daughter and grandchildren of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson ordered a psychological exam as part of a lawsuit filed in February against their 87-year-old billionaire father and grandfather, alleging that Benson’s wife is wrongfully taking advantage of his mental competency.
The pessimist, still: How could a team that boasts Davis and defensive-minded Omer Asik rate as one of the eight-worst defenses in the NBA? How could a team get outscored 29 to 13 in eight minutes' worth of clutch situations (game within five in the final five minutes) in the series? How could they blow a 17-point lead with six minutes left in a pivotal Game 3 at home? Because the coach is out of his league, the pessimist says. After all, LeBron James played for four different coaches before he won his first title.
The truth lies somewhere in between. The truth is that the future looks bright for the Pelicans, much brighter than it did just a month ago, but they still have a ways to go before they grip the nation as tightly as Davis has gripped the league. Soon, the citizens won’t forget there’s a playoff game in town.
“The guy will be the MVP within the next few years, I think,” Kerr said of Davis. “I hope he has a nice offseason and doesn’t get too much better from here. He was brilliant.”
His brilliance was rarely duplicated by his supporting cast. Gordon showed flashes of excellence at the 2. Evans, who battled a bum knee that forced him out of half of Game 1, exhibited only glimpses of his talent. Ryan Anderson often scored like a 26-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, but just as often got exploited on the other end like a 36-year-old Nowitzki.
The organization will have to figure out if Williams is the right coach to take them to the mountaintop. He’s gotten him to the base, a playoff berth and 45-37 record in Davis’ third season. How much higher can he take them?
What’s clear is that Williams is hitching his wagon to Davis at every opportunity. When Davis walked into the tunnel after Saturday’s defeat, Williams was right there with him, placing his hand on Davis’ shoulder. And that’s the wise thing to do. He knows this is a generational talent.
“Guys go through it, especially when you’re a great player,” Williams said of playoff struggles. “[Davis] and I both know we both have different pressure than everybody else. So we have different hurt than everybody else also. I’m positive he’s going to have more good moments than bad because he wants it so bad, and he works at it. He’s what’s good about the NBA.”
Commissioner Adam Silver, who was on hand to witness Davis’ greatness in Game 4, has to agree. He surely noticed the league is in good hands with Davis as its greatest big man. The league should do better next season than to bury the Pelicans on the national-TV schedule like they did this season. Davis’ play demands it.
Davis is the next LeBron, the next KD, the next great one. Get this tidbit from the Elias Sports Bureau: Davis joins Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 10 rebounds over their first four career postseason games. Four Hall of Famers.
Davis is respectful of those greats, but at this moment, he doesn’t want to hear anything of that.
“It’s always an honor to be in that category with those guys,” Davis said. “But at the same time, my focus isn’t about getting in the record books or stats or anything like that. In this series, the focus was on winning, and in this series, winning one game. And I wasn’t able to it. So [the individual achievement] doesn’t mean anything right now. We got swept, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The sweep doesn’t reflect how close this series was. The Pelicans held a lead for 65 minutes during the series, which equates to about a little more than a quarter’s worth of action per game.
In the end, the Pelicans will likely stand pat with Dell Demps as general manager and Williams as head coach because that’s what teams typically do with an impressive playoff push like that. This is a team that hails from the 52nd-largest TV market in the country and barely has to feel the twist of national scrutiny. The playoff appearance brings respect, but soon the magnifying glass will follow.
You can see the Spurs’ fingertips around the Pelicans organization. Demps was groomed as an executive with the Spurs before joining New Orleans in 2010. In the late 1990s, Williams played two seasons for then-GM Gregg Popovich and recently brought Davis to work out with Duncan in the offseason.
Believe it or not, Williams played with Duncan when the Spurs big man was a 22-year-old rookie out of Wake Forest. And even with that experience with an all-time great, Williams puts Davis at a cut above in some respects.
“For a 22-year-old,” Williams said of Davis, “his leadership quality is unlike anybody I’ve been around at this age.”
On July 1, the Pelicans will almost certainly offer Davis a five-year contract extension to continue what they hope will be a career in New Orleans filled with championships and MVP seasons. No one will forget.
“When you have a guy like [Davis], who can put up the numbers he did, and he has those pieces around him,” Curry said. “They will figure it out.”
It’ll be scary when they do, whoever gets them there. We’ll remember this season as the one in which Davis pushed and didn’t stop until the final buzzer sounded. In the final minute with the game out of reach, Davis launched a desperation 3-pointer that came up well short. He slowly walked back on defense, defeated, pulling the jersey over his face as if to hide from the imminent truth that the season was coming to a close. Davis hung his head at center court and for a brief moment, we were reminded of his youth.
For Davis, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. We learned this postseason that the reign of Davis has begun. And the league won’t soon forget what a 22-year-old Davis did to them this season. Indeed, Davis and this New Orleans team have arrived.