Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best players in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
Eighty-three players logged playing time in the NBA’s four-game slate Thursday night. Not one ran a greater distance than Anthony Davis did. Davis ran 2.71 miles in the Pelicans’ 112–106 victory over the Bucks on Thursday. Is basketball actually a game of inches? The immediacy of infinitesimal space on any given possession isn’t quite as pronounced as it is in, say, football or tennis — but then you watch Davis try, for the ninth time this season, to bring New Orleans its first win of the season. At least in that instance, the answer is depressingly clear. The Pelicans needed every centimeter.
These King of the Court snapshots are supposed to be celebrations, so we’ll try: Davis finished the game with a common stat line, by his standards — 32 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals, and four blocks. It was the standard Brow experience: sweet midrange jump shots, putback dunks that materialize out of thin air, amazing weakside blocks. He did it all in just under 41 and a half minutes. He is the NBA’s current minutes leader, notching 341 with just over a 10th of the season in the books; only Kyle Lowry and Harrison Barnes average more minutes per game. That’s not ideal.
Dammit, sorry. It’s hard to dissect Davis’s greatness without acknowledging the complete void he has to operate within. As good a performance as he put on Thursday night, it could’ve gone better; for instance, the two assists notched in the box score could’ve been five or six, had his rifle passes on the run to the left corner for open 3s been fielded by competent shooters. There are some positive signs, though. Solomon Hill, the Pelicans’ $48 million summer investment, had his second good game of the season, throwing down a funky 8–6–5–1–1 stat line in his first game as a reserve player. To combat the Bucks’ versatile lineups, coach Alvin Gentry put Davis, Hill, and Terrence Jones in at the same time for a significant chunk of the game to good results. Hill might not be the small forward that Gentry has to pigeonhole him into becoming, but his negatives in that role are mitigated a bit by Jones and Davis both being comfortable out on the perimeter, occasionally creating lanes for Hill to flash his playmaking ability. It’s cool that Gentry has made neat origami out of Omer Asik’s albatross contract, but if the Pelicans intend to win more games, he’ll have to create more situations for high-upside trios like Davis, Hill, and Jones.
At this point, though, New Orleans has the distinct odor of an extremely bad team. The Pelicans had an 11-point lead with just under six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and within a minute, they appeared to buckle a little. I’ve spent a substantial amount of the past three years of my life watching the Sixers disintegrate late in games. Maybe it’s a matter of culture; maybe they just don’t know how to win. A loser playing with nothing else to lose is one thing; a loser playing with something to gain is another thing entirely. The Pelicans allowed seven offensive rebounds in the final three and a half minutes of the game. Losing, specifically in those close games, becomes a self-filling prophecy. With Matthew Dellavedova at the line with 15 seconds left in the game, trying to bring the score to within one point, it sure felt like the Pelicans were going to find a way to keep riding this wave of defeat. Delly missed the second attempt, and Davis would seal the game with two free throws of his own.
The Pelicans worked so hard for this win. So hard. It’s gutting to watch a player so physically superior, so innately skilled, strain so much for a team that, in its current form, has no shot at sustained success. I just hope his already-battered frame can withstand it all.