There are certain shots that tend to define iconic careers in the NBA, and if Anthony Davis is to become one of those icons — which seems increasingly likely by the day — the first of those shots came Feb. 6 in Oklahoma City. It is not the kind of midrange jumper or post move that Davis is known for. It remains, in fact, his only successful 3-pointer of this entire season.
But as it turns out, this is the shot that pushed Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans over the edge and into the Western Conference playoffs, where they will face the top-seeded Warriors on Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. This is the shot that gave the edge to the Pelicans over the Thunder for that final seed when both teams won on the final night of the regular season Wednesday evening. This is the shot that made it seem Davis might be capable of almost anything. With 1.6 seconds remaining in a tie game, Davis cut well beyond the 3-point line, took an inbounds pass and, with Kevin Durant’s considerable arm in his face, he double-pumped, put up an arcing shot and banked it in as time expired.
The moments, the numbers, the entirety of his rapid emergence — even he has to pause sometimes and wonder how he became a transcendent young player in a league he could dominate for the next decade and a half. “Sometimes it’s crazy, like, ‘Who does something like that?’” Davis said. “But when you’re out there having fun, anything can happen.”
Perhaps there was a flukish aspect to the shot — perhaps it was one of those game of horse shots that just happened to land — but there is very little else that appears flukish about Davis being here, leading his team to the playoffs for the first time at the age of 22. Offensively, he is a deadly scorer. Defensively, he is the sort of long-armed and intimidating big man who hasn’t come along in years. You want basic statistics? Davis averaged 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 2.9 blocks per game. You want advanced statistics? Davis’ player efficiency rating was 30.89, making him the only player other than LeBron James to average above 30 in the past five seasons. You want wins and losses? The Pelicans went 8-3 in their last 11 games of the season to clinch that playoff berth. In the final game of the season against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, with that playoff spot on the line, Davis scored 31 and had 13 rebounds, hit a couple of key jumpers (including one over Hall of Famer-to-be Tim Duncan), and his late block of a Boris Diaw shot clinched the victory — and most likely saved coach Monty Williams’ job in the process.
“Honestly, I know I all told y’all before this game it didn’t mean nothing, but I tried to downplay it because I didn’t want to get too excited,” Davis said. “It meant a lot — and we played like it meant something.”
It doesn’t get any easier from here, of course. If the Pelicans are somehow to upset the Warriors, the burden will fall largely on Davis to carry his team. Davis doesn’t have near the supporting cast of this series’ other burgeoning icon, Stephen Curry. Down the stretch against the Spurs, Williams admitted, the Pelicans relied on Davis on both ends of the floor to carry them. Maybe he’s not quite ready to do that against a team as good as the Warriors, but he’s getting to that point faster than perhaps any other player in the league. Which is why the first time in four seasons — and for the first time since they reinvented themselves as the Pelicans, and brought Davis into the fold — a New Orleans basketball team finds itself in the playoffs.
“I’m just proud of these guys, proud of our coaching staff,” Davis said. “We made it — made the playoffs — and reached our goal. But it’s not over.”
Williams has learned not to put anything past Davis. “It happens for him because of his talent and how hard he plays,” he said. “But our guys look for him. They know that more than likely, he’s going to carry us. … And a lot of stuff he creates on his own — blocked shots, steals, assists — just a really, really good player.
“About five years ago, he was in high school.”
A focal point of the series will be his matchup against Draymond Green, one of the league’s top defensive player. Green, not always deferential, said Davis deserves all of his accolades.
“Absolutely. He’s very good,” Green said. “The way he’s grown the last couple of years, at a rapid pace, he’s very good. It’s a tough challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.
“He doesn’t have a go-to move, so it’s hard to really try to stop one specific thing. He doesn’t overpower you. He uses his length well and athleticism. He has improved his jump shot, whether it’s 18 feet or a turnaround jumper in the post. You can’t prepare to stop one move — he has so many of them. You’ve got to guard him straight up and make him take tough shots.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.