Ever since the New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA draft lottery in the spring of 2012 and got the right to draft Anthony Davis out of Kentucky, the league has been primed for this moment. The time when the Pelicans would emerge from the playoff fringe and into the limelight. With a devastating playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers behind them and a date with the defending champion Golden State Warriors ahead of them, it’s looking like that time is here. Here’s a closer look at who the Pelicans are:
New Orleans plays at the fastest pace in the league. Head coach Alvin Gentry has been here before with a team that excels in transition. Gentry coached the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in 2010. There’s no Nash this time around, but Jrue Holiday just spent the last four games doing a pretty fair imitation. Holiday torched an excellent Portland backcourt for an average of 28ppg in the first round series. That’s off a season where he averaged 19 points/5 rebounds/6 assists.
Holiday leads up a well-balanced backcourt. Rajon Rondo looks like he’s finally recaptured the magic of his Celtics glory days. After a regular season where he averaged a steady eight assists per game, Rondo kicked up his game against the Blazers and averaged 11 assists. He also kicked up his trash-talking game for the playoffs, an even surer sign that Rajon is on a roll. E’Twaun Moore didn’t play a huge role against Portland, with Holiday going crazy, but the former Purdue guard did chip in 13ppg during the season and will have to be a factor against Golden State.
It was the end of January when New Orleans sat at 27-21 and got word that DeMarcus Cousins would miss the rest of the season. Cousins, a beast in the post, was averaging 25/13/5. But as a true post player, you can argue that he forced the Pelicans to operate in a more halfcourt game than was ideal. The record would back that up. Since the injury, New Orleans made modest improvement, going 21-13 before blasting their way through Portland.
A big reason is the work of forward Nikola Mirotic. If Cousins is the proto-type old-school post player, Mirotic is the classic “Stretch-4” of modern power forward parlance. After a steady regular season of averaging 15/8, Mirotic was unstoppable against the Blazers. He hit 12-for-26 from behind the arc for the series and it seemed that every trey he nailed was a big one. It goes without saying that Mirotic will have to do the same if New Orleans is to have a chance against Golden State.
And finally we come to Anthony Davis. He’s become everything he was supposed to be when teams were falling all over themselves at the end of the 2012 regular season, trying to tank and get more ping-pong balls in the lottery. His regular season numbers were 28 points/11 rebounds/2 assists/3 blocks. He can be a classic post player, a stretch-4…you name it, Anthony can be it. He may finish as high as second in the MVP voting this year to James Harden, and frankly I would take him before Harden if I had one player to go win a series with. Davis is a devastating force, the kind of player you win championships with.
That ultimate championship is going to have to wait. It would be unreasonable to expect New Orleans to beat Golden State, especially if Steph Curry can get on the floor. Playing at the fast pace the Pelicans like isn’t exactly conducive to beating the Warriors and as good as Davis is, Kevin Durant will still be the best player on the floor in this second-round series (I’m obviously presuming Golden State closes out San Antonio, which likely happens in Game 5 at Oakland tonight) .
What I’m most interested in is just how hard the Pelicans can push the defending champs. The NBA is notorious as the league where you have to get your heart broken before you win really big. I think it would be a significant breakthrough for New Orleans to at least be competitive, which I’ll define as taking the series to six games. That won’t be easy against a veteran championship team that has found its playoff rhythm. But I’ll predict that Davis is good enough to at least steal a couple wins in the battle to come.