With the Pelicans leading Indiana by two with less than a minute left in Wednesday’s game, Anthony Davis caught the ball in the post while being defended by Myles Turner. He spun clockwise, took one dribble, and pump-faked. When Turner didn’t bite, Davis resorted to making a fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face.
On the other end, Indiana patiently worked the ball around until Darren Collison drove past a closing-out Jrue Holiday for what seemed like an open layup. With Davis stuck between protecting the rim and hanging with the sharp-shooting Turner in the corner, Collison had a clear path to the rim. But when Collison jumped for the layup, Davis still blocked it.
The two sequences should have sealed the game, but after Holiday was fouled, he missed both free throws. As the second clank dallied on the rim, guess who was able to out-muscle the two defenders who had sandwiched him and tip the ball back in? Yup. That Davis tip sealed the game.
Davis had some help. E’Twaun Moore had a great game with 23 points and a critical putback before the Davis fadeaway, while Nikola Mirotic made back-to-back threes that helped propel the Pelicans in the fourth quarter. But when push comes to shove, it always comes down to Davis in New Orleans.
He is always where the Pelicans start and stop.
Lately, he hasn’t been stopped. Since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, Davis has arguably been the best player in the NBA. Even though James Harden is sure to win MVP, Davis has been added to the conversation as a recognition of his recent performances. The Pelicans sit in fifth place after winning three in a row during a rare four-games-in-five nights stretch. In those games, Davis scored 26, 34, 37, 28.
Whenever Davis has an outlandish performance, I’m reminded of what he did against the Spurs on the final day of the 2014-2015 season, when the Pelicans needed to win to make their first and only playoff appearance since 2011. He ended that game with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Those points included a crossover and a fadeaway jumper against Tim Duncan to take the Pelicans lead to 99-88, and then another jumper to extend the lead when the Spurs closed the gap to seven. With a bit more than 30 seconds left in the game, he also blocked Boris Diaw at the rim to seal the game.
That was enough to sneak New Orleans into the playoffs because they had the tiebreaker over the Thunder. The game that gave them the head-to-head series win that put the tiebreaker into action was won because of a double-clutch three pointer by Davis at the last second.
But as thrilling as this is to watch, Davis should never have to be this transcendent, at least not all the time. His greatness should be showcased within the context of great team wins. It should come in a situation like he had with Cousins earlier this season, where he someone else to handle some of the burden of leading the team.
Sadly, Cousins’ Achilles injury thrust Davis back into the same trap he’s been in for his whole career. If he’s not amazing every night, his team will fail, but a team that needs one player to be ridiculous every night is ultimately destined to fall short of its potential, regardless of who that player is. The player is Davis, whose body often betrays him in the form of countless nagging injuries, makes it even more dangerous.
Individual greatness in sports is easiest to appreciate when the players gets to choose moments or games to showcase their dominance. They stand out because the player is allowed to have off or just run-of-the-mill nights, or even sequences when the system of the team uplifts the player.
Davis doesn’t have that luxury, not now and not ever. He is the system in New Orleans. The team needs his 53 and 18, and 45 and 17 nights, or similar, all the time. In the last two months, New Orleans has only won twice when he scored fewer than 27 points: once each against the tanking Kings and Mavericks. They also lost once against the Timberwolves, when he scored 38. He’s in MVP form because that’s the only way to give his team a chance.
This is similar to Westbrook’s bind last year, when the Thunder won most of the games in which Westbrook posted a triple-double. If Westbrook faltered, and he was bound to falter because players are human, the team would collapse from both a lack of talent and lack of identity besides “Russ, save us.”
This point is not lost on Davis, as he noted in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols over all-star weekend:
A lot of minutes; the weight of the world on your shoulders. You have to carry the team on your back ... you have to almost get 40 every night to give us a chance to win.
It’s tough. You kind of have to have that Russell Westbrook mentality. When [Kevin Durant] went out … Russ just went out there and played. He shot 40 shots sometimes; whatever it takes to help your team win. We’re kind of taking that approach.
The strain of that all-conquering individuality takes a more anxious turn when paired with Davis’ injury history. Since coming into the league, he’s suffered more than 30 injuries — and that doesn’t include the countless other games in which Davis had an injury scare, but ultimately returned. Those ailments range from sore ankles to the torn labrum that ended his 2015-2016 season, an injury he’d been playing through since his rookie year. He’s had season-ending injuries in three of his five NBA years: an MCL sprain/bruise in his rookie year, back spasms the year after, and the shoulder pain.
Davis’ ability is unquestionable, but his health problems are part of his package as well. In this month alone, he’s suffered a rib and ankle injury. Depending on him to do everything only piles more pressure on his already fragile body.
Davis has been saving the Pelicans from themselves since they drafted him. The circumstances are a bit different this time, because injury robbed him of the second superstar he sorely needed. But at this point it seems like a cruel joke that Davis is back in a situation where he has to be outrageous every night just to get the Pelicans into the postseason.
In that subsequent playoffs after he beat the Spurs in 2015, Davis averaged 31 points and 11 rebounds against the mighty Golden State Warriors. The Pelicans were swept.
As West teams jostle for position, there’s a distinct possibility the Pelicans will see the Thunder in the first round. That’d provide a fitting point of comparison for the limits of individual talent. The player who won the MVP by stuffing the stat-sheet, the player Davis said he’s now emulating, is now on a more balanced team with another star in Paul George. Despite OKC’s uneven season, you’d probably bet on them to win the series if they played. Westbrook simply has more weapons.
In Westbrook’s case, Oklahoma City only depended on him completely for one season. In Davis’, this is the story of the career. If he does improbably lead them to the playoffs this year, the limits of that type of dependency will likely be exposed as it was before. This is their routine.
That is, unless his body breaks down from the burden he’s carrying before that point, which would be even worse, but sadly possible.