Before the “embarrassing” second quarter his team played against the defending NBA champions in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday, things were continuing to point Due North for Anthony Davis.
His Pelicans were in the semifinals for the first time since they were the Hornets a decade ago. Back then, David West and Chris Paul — now twice removed from their New Orleans days — were the franchise’s mainstays. And Davis was the key reason why, making an MVP push over the second half of the season since DeMarcus Cousins’s season-ending Achilles’ rupture in late January that was phenomenal in its scope.
Davis scored at will, inhaled rebounds and opponent shots, and saved his best for last, averaging 33 points and 11.8 rebounds in New Orleans’ sweep of Portland in the first round — a welcome salve for a city dealing with the death in March of Tom Benson. He owned both the Pelicans and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and was beloved through much of the Big Easy.
The five-time All-Star Davis got a lot of help from Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and newly acquired Nikola Mirotic, to be sure. But Davis is the swizzle stick that stirs the franchise’s Sazerac. And as the Pels have gotten their swerve on, Davis might finally be able to relax for a while.
There’s a cottage industry of trade rumors for the supposedly unhappy Davis by assorted Celtics, Cavs and other fans who take it as inevitable that the poor misbegotten Pelicans will have to move their franchise player. Yet here’s New Orleans, right where they are in the postseason, with “The Brow” happy where he is, and ready to take them places they haven’t been in a long time.
Me: There’s no way to prepare for the Warriors other than playing them, I know. But on the other hand, do you think they’re prepared for the way you guys are playing now?
Anthony Davis: No. We’re a different team since, well, not the last time we played them. But overall, we’re a different team. Playing fast, playing hard, playing for each other. We’ve kicked it up a notch. We know that they did as well. It’s going to be a fun series — competitive, physical.
Me: What did you know about Niko before he came?
AD: Nothing really. Shooter. That’s all I saw, that he could shoot the ball. Any time we played him when he was in Chicago, the scout was, get into his air space, ‘cause he can shoot the ball. But he can pass, defend — which surprised me. He’s able to guard guards and even some bigs, and that surprised me. Rebound. Physicality. All of that surprised me about Niko, and he’s been great for our team.
Me: With him as a floor-spacer, what does that do for Jrue and the guards on offense?
AD: It does a lot. Knowing that guys can’t leave him. So Jrue, Rondo, E’Twaun [Moore], Ian [Clark], all those guys, they can get in the paint. And they can’t leave him. So layups, or lobs, and if they do leave him, we’re kicking it out to him, and he’s making shots. So he’s playing real well. But his spacing gives myself the ability, and Jrue and all the guards, we’re able to just play freely inside the paint.
… If we turn the ball over, taking bad shots and not getting back on defense, those guys are hitting threes. You do that three out of the next five, six possessions, that could be the difference in the game.”
Anthony Davis, on playing the Warriors
Me: Your team played so well against Portland. What was it like to be in a playoff series where you know, if we’re not the better team, we’re playing better than they are?
AD: Our whole thing was just trying to take away their guards, knowing Dame and C.J. was the head of the snake. We take those two guys out, we knew it would probably be a little more difficult for those guys to play with us. Jrue, Rondo, E’Twaun, Ian, they did a great job on those guys. Even when Niko and I switched on them, we were able to get some contests, make them shoot some tough shots. It was a great series for us to prepare for this. Of course the game plan is a lot different now. But I think that series prepared us to move on. That was a great team. But our whole mindset was we didn’t want to go back to Portland. Every game was different. Guys were making shots. But we tried to take Dame or C.J. out of the game. We wanted both. But some games it was C.J. had 38 or something like that, but Dame only had 17. So we just wanted to make sure both of them didn’t get going, and all four of our guards did a great job on them.
Me: How much did beating the Warriors in Oakland at the end of the regular season help your team confidence going into the playoffs?
AD: A lot. We needed to win four of our last five games to stamp that we were in the playoffs. And everybody was like, ’oh , (you might play) Golden State, we’re not sure.’ But we knew in the locker room, we go out and play the way we need to play, we’ll be fine. We didn’t turn the ball over that much. We defended. Of course we had to contend without Steph, but we wanted to make sure we came in to get this game. Guys was playing hard, playing for each other. We were making shots. Even when they made their runs, which they’re going to make during the game, especially at home, we kind of came back with a run of our own. They make shots, the crowd goes crazy, get the ball out fast, score quick. That was our mindset. And we were able to do that and eventually win the game.
Me: So what’s the most important thing in a seven-game series with them?
AD: Don’t turn the ball over. Don’t turn the ball over, and transition. That’s what gets them going. We’re a good defensive halfcourt team. We feel like we get in the halfcourt, we can stop anybody. But if we’re turning the ball over, there’s no defense for that. And they’re getting out and they’re not running for layups. All those guys are running for threes. So if we turn the ball over, taking bad shots and not getting back on defense, those guys are hitting threes. You do that three out of the next five, six possessions, that could be the difference in the game. So our thing is don’t turn the ball over, and get back.
Me: What has it been like in New Orleans these past few weeks?
AD: Crazy. It’s been crazy, it’s been exciting. Our fans have been excited. Games have been packed. It’s been loud. So it’s been fun. They’re excited for us, and we’re excited to be doing this for the city. Especially with everything that happened with Mr. Benson. I think it kind of brought some life back to the city. Everybody’s excited.
I love Connect Four. He can’t beat me. … I won’t allow him to beat me.
Davis, on a potential Connect Four showdown with Rajon Rondo
Me: Did you know him well?
AD: I did. It was a tough situation for me. I was in disbelief, honestly. But he did everything he could to make sure that we were as successful as possible. Whether it went to the new (practice) facility, the adjustments in the arena, giving our organization whatever they needed, he just wanted the guys to win. He’d come in after games and say, if we lost, ‘you guys didn’t win tonight, but keep going.’ Or if we did win, (he’d say) ‘great job tonight.’ He always would say ‘bring a championship.’ That’s all he said. So for us to go to the playoffs and then get out of the first round, and now we’re in the second round, it kind of has given everybody in the city life, and confidence. It’s been fun.
Me: And Mrs. Benson came and talked to y’all afterwards.
AD: Sure. She did. Strong woman. Strong woman. She’s supporting us the same way she did when Mr. Benson was here. She was in the role that’s important, cheering us on. And she’d come in the locker room and kind of give us that speech as well. So we’re playing for him, we’re playing for the city, we’re playing for the organization. It’s been a fun time for us.
Me: How have you tried to keep Boogie in the loop while he’s out?
AD: He actually texted me today: ‘be great.’ I don’t think I have to try to keep him in. He wants to be in the loop at all times. Of course he wants to be here and play, and it’s tough on him, especially the way we’re playing — ‘man, I want to be a part of it,’ and you’re on the bench and we’re playing so well. He wants to be a part of it and he can’t. He tries to be part of the group as much as possible, whether it’s just texting us, he came to the games in New Orleans. I’m not sure if he’s going to come out here, but he’s there. ‘AD, next game, maybe you can do this,’ or ‘AD, defensively, offensively, or whatever, tell the team this.’ We have our own GroupChat with the players and he’s constantly texting us in there. He’s involved. And we can’t ask more of him.
He wants to be in the loop at all times. Of course he wants to be here and play, and it’s tough on him, especially the way we’re playing … He wants to be a part of it and he can’t.”
Davis, on teammate DeMarcus Cousins
Me: So, going forward, is there a way to incorporate what he does — because you were starting to play really well as a team when he got hurt — with the way you’re playing now?
AD: We’d be a different team if he was playing. He brings so much to our team at both ends of the floor. Gives me a little break. But he’s a big key to our team. When he went down, that’s why we struggled the next five games. How do we run our offense now? A lot of stuff went through him at the top of the floor, because he was able to pass, able to dribble and facilitate. And so I had to kind of get back into, all right, ‘AD without Boogie,’ and got back into that and we were able to pick back up. If he was playing now, we’d be a totally different team. We’d probably be more inside-out. And then with the shooters that we have, adding Niko, our team would be totally different. And I think we’d be even more dominant.
Me: So, how gratified are you that this success you’re having is finally starting to drown out all the talk of ‘AD is going to leave New Orleans in a couple of years?’
AD: It’s still there. I still hear it. But I’m just focused on now. Right now, we’re playing well. I love these guys. I told them the other night at dinner, this is probably the best team I’ve been on, from team chemistry to the way we play, to everything we do together. Guys are really locked in and want to win. And when you have a team like that, it’s tough to think about anything else. And like I said, I’m excited for the series, to see how we match up against these guys. They’re the defending champs, four All-Stars on their team. And I think the guys are ready for it. It’s going to be an exciting series. But I don’t worry about anything else or what anyone else is saying about leaving or trades or whatever. I just worry about the guys in this locker room, and this team.
Me: So, you played Rondo in Connect Four yet?
AD: Nah, I haven’t. But Rondo can’t beat me, though.
AD: I love Connect Four. He can’t beat me.
Me: Dude, you’re throwing it down against the all-time Connect Four guy.
AD: We’ll have to set it up. He can’t beat me, though.
Me: I want to televise it.
AD: For sure. I won’t allow him to beat me. But Rondo likes to cheat, though. He says if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. Rondo likes to cheat. He looks a certain way, and I’m like, ‘what are you doing?’ And we’re both Pisces, so we kind of understand each other. We definitely should set it up.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
If you talk about yourself in third person do me a favor. Don’t talk.
— Tobias Harris (@tobias31) April 27, 2018
— Clippers forward Tobias Harris (@Tobias31), Thursday, 10:13 p.m. David agrees wholeheartedly that speaking about oneself in the third person is incredibly obnoxious, and David wishes people would stop doing it.
THEY SAID IT
“I’ve done what I’ve done in the past. I let my game speak for itself. I feel like, when I get a certain amount of minutes and when the coaches allow me to be me on the court, I’m Rondo. There’s no ‘Playoff Rondo.’ ”
— Rajon Rondo, to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, on why he hates what may be the greatest nickname in the game today.
“You’ll walk around at home in your drawers, that don’t mean you’ll go to your friends house and feel comfortable doing the same thing… I don’t know where the hell that came from. I just thought it was a cool analogy.”
— DeMar DeRozan, to local reporters, on the comfort level players have playing at home as opposed to being on the road.
“It was all mine. My staff, they don’t really do anything. Every once in a while, I ask them to give me a coach or maybe a snack. But I make every decision.”
— Steve Kerr, batting aside the question of which assistant coach/staffer came up with the idea of starting Nick Young, used sparingly in the first round against the Spurs, in Game 1 of the Warriors’ Western Conference semifinal series with New Orleans.
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