All the way back in 2015, before the Warriors conquered the NBA landscape, the first team standing in the way of Golden State’s nascent dynasty was the New Orleans Pelicans, featuring Anthony Davis in his playoff debut. The Pelicans gave the Warriors everything they had—especially Davis, who averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks per game—but failed to win a game in the series. The Warriors moved on, and while the loss seemed like a mere rite of passage for Davis and the upstart Pels, injuries and roster malfunctions derailed their next two seasons.
Three years later, New Orleans is back in the playoffs for the first time since that 2015 series and is now on the precipice of earning a rematch with Golden State after three straight wins over the third-seeded Trail Blazers. The latest was an absolute dismantling: The Pelicans beat Portland on Thursday night, 119-102, but the final score hides that the Pelicans led by 20-plus for nearly the entire fourth quarter. The Brow’s numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they were in 2015—28.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 blocks per game in three games this series—but his impact is visible on every play on both sides of the court. In the wake of DeMarcus Cousins’s season-ending Achilles tear, the Pelicans seem to have finally figured out the right combination of players to put around Davis, and the star big man’s outsize impact (literally and metaphorically) is giving them every opportunity to thrive.
But while these Pelicans can still put up points like the 2015 edition featuring Rockets-to-be Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, they now have a defense to match. Portland had as many turnovers at halftime (12) as it did in all of Game 1 in large part because the entire New Orleans roster relentlessly swiped for the ball from tip to final buzzer. They reduced the Dame Lillard–and–C.J. McCollum backcourt from a unit that could blot out the sun to one that resembled the Phoenix Suns. Even the Pelicans fans wearing red—the Blazers color—seemed to say, we own you.
Davis had 28 points and 11 rebounds on the night, but for the second straight game, his stat line deferred to that of one of his teammates. Nikola Mirotic, procured at the trade deadline for a draft pick and Omer Asik’s sweaty salary, had 30 points on 12-of-15 shooting before sitting out the fourth quarter. Rajon Rondo continued to look like the vintage playoff version of himself, with 16 points and 11 assists on 7-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-2 from 3. Jrue Holiday looked like the two-way player that could live up to the $131.8 million contract he signed last summer, scoring 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting (2-of-3 from 3) with seven assists while being a pest on defense throughout the night and nabbing three steals.
Yet the entire Pelicans renaissance (Pelaissance?) begins and ends with Davis realizing his promise as the Unicorn of Unicorns, a true two-way tour de force who alters every aspect of the game just by being there.
UBoogie’s reaction to Anthony Davis finishing every alley-oop thrown to him like it’s NBA Jam pic.twitter.com/JCQ9pEYZ3o— Pettywise (@World_Wide_Wob) April 20, 2018
Davis suffered a left thumb injury early that briefly sent him to the locker room. It didn’t seem to bother him.
Anthony Davis, my goodness. pic.twitter.com/AGr79MPgoh— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) April 20, 2018
Even when his numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet, his very presence jumps off the court, through your screen, and over you for a putback dunk. Barring an epic collapse or a [furiously knocks on wood] Davis injury, it looks like the Pelicans will sweep away Portland on Saturday and win their first series in a decade. That puts Davis in the second round for the first time in his career. Waiting for him there will likely be those same Warriors, who are somehow even better than the team that Davis faced three years ago. Depending on Steph Curry’s health, the matchup could be more favorable than it would seem, and this time Davis might actually lead the Pelicans to win a game and [whispers] perhaps the series. Davis is going to get his rematch. We should all be thrilled that we get to watch.