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New Orleans Pelicans playoff preview: Anthony Davis' first playoff appearance awaits

The Pelicans got to the NBA Playoffs on the season's final day, but will Anthony Davis' first stay in the postseason be a short one?

The New Orleans Pelicans achieved their goal, even if they didn't do it in the way many outsiders wanted. Rather than keep their powder dry during Anthony Davis' formative years, the Pelicans made big moves to build a good team around him right away. Goodbye, draft picks and cap flexibility. Hello, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik and others.

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But it's worked, at least for now. Yes, the Pelicans benefited from Oklahoma City's health failings, but they overcame a barrage of injuries of their own to reach the playoffs on the final night of the season. A superhuman season from Davis got them here, but so did Evans' improved floor game, Asik's stability, Eric Gordon's mini-bounce back and the shrewd acquisitions of Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham and Norris Cole on the cheap. This is far more than just a one-man team. Heck, it would have qualified more easily if not for head-scratching losses to teams like the Knicks, 76ers and Magic.

The Pelicans don't defend well enough to make a deep playoff run in West, but with Davis leading the way, they'll be a fun show in the first round. We can worry about whether they've rebuilt the right way another time.

How they beat you

The Pelicans offense is tough to stop. You know about Davis, but New Orleans has all the other elements to thrive. It has spot-up shooting with Gordon and Pondexter, the option to go offense (Ryan Anderson) or defense (Asik) inside and an attacking guard in Evans who puts pressure on defenses. The return of Holiday from injury is a big boost because he's a shrewd point guard who provides a different look from Evans' barreling style.

That combination of flexibility, shooting and attacking allows Monty Williams to open up his playbook. The Pelicans leverage their threats well, especially after timeouts. Defenses scramble thinking one player is the primary option on a play, only to get burned by the man they didn't expect.

But the Pelicans offense is effective even on simple actions because Davis is so versatile. He immediately becomes a lethal weapon in pick-and-roll sets, whether he drives all the way to the hoop, fades to the perimeter, stops in a short roll at the free throw line or runs into the post on a switch. The Pelicans smartly run a lot of pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs inside the three-point line, which leaves Davis just one step from rising for a huge slam. Teams often commit the cardinal sin of racing off three-point shooters to account for him in the mid-range area, which sets up open perimeter shots and cuts either directly or indirectly assisted by Davis.

davis decoy 2

davis decoy 1

The Pelicans are also dangerous off missed shots. It's difficult to prevent Evans in particular from getting to the basket on the break because of his unique footwork.

How you beat them

New Orleans' defense isn't as bad as the season-long numbers suggest, but it's still weak compared to other playoff teams. The Pelicans allow more shot attempts in the restricted area than any other team despite having both Davis and Asik, which is a basketball crime. Davis is often too far from the basket in New Orleans' scheme and still has to improve his positioning and timing.

The real problems happen when either Asik or Davis is on the bench. Anderson remains a dangerous offensive player, but his defense fell off badly this season. The Pelicans allow 109 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game and fewer than 102 when he's not. Smart teams attack him again and again in pick-and-rolls to take advantage of his slow feet.




The Pelicans also have issues with shot distribution late in close games. Davis has a whopping 70 percent true shooting mark when the game is within five points with less than five minutes to go, but his usage rate in clutch situations is about equal to Evans' even though Tyreke has the 11th-worst true shooting percentage among guards who have at least 25 crunch-time appearances. That's a major problem against defenses that'll tighten up in the postseason.

Most important player

It's not fair to say that the Pelicans are Davis and a bunch of scrubs. It is fair to say that the Pelicans have one super-duper star who's one of the league's most essential players despite there being talent elsewhere on the roster.

Davis' numbers are overwhelming. He has the league's best player efficiency rating, a 59 percent true shooting mark and one of the league's highest plus/minus numbers.

But an easier way to think of Davis' dominance is to consider all the ways he impacts a game. Teams flood to him when he's 16 feet from the basket. They don't leave him when he's lurking on the baseline and a guard is flying in for an uncontested layup. They don't attack his side of the court on defense. They don't let guards go at him on switches because that's not an advantage. They don't double-team him because he can find open players. They rush multiple help defenders into the lane when he's rolling to the basket.

It's amazing to think that Anthony Davis, the NBA's PER leader, is better than the numbers indicate. But it's also true.

Let 'em have it

All hail the Pelicans marketing department for this ad.

It's a callback to a famous local furniture store ad, so it's the kind of thing only New Orleans residents would understand. That's fine with the team, as senior vice president of marketing Ben Hales told SB Nation's Paul Flannery:

"All we're concerned about is appealing to our culture. We're not worried about what anybody else says. What's important is that fans understand as a team and an organization, we get it. We're not marketing to people who come down for Mardi Gras. We're marketing to the people who live here year-round, who never see the French Quarter except maybe twice a year if they want to go to dinner someplace. Once you get past tourist New Orleans, that's the stuff people come back for. Mardi Gras is great, we all love it and we all participate in it, but it's the rest of the year stuff that makes New Orleans so special."

Watching a Pelicans home game means seeing a unique New Orleans experience. Here's hoping the marketing team does something creative for the Pelicans' home playoff games.