You’ll have to forgive New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry for not feeling the need to mount some coordinated public campaign for Anthony Davis for Kia MVP.
Gentry figures the voters have eyes, so they’ve seen the same jaw-dropping things from the superstar big man that he sees every night.
“He’s great, man. Just an absolutely great player in every aspect,” Gentry said in a hallway at the Smoothie King Center after Davis and the Pelicans came up short in a critical game against the Portland Trail Blazers. “You want to know what kind of guy he is? He’s in there beating himself up saying he should have done more. What more could he have done? He got 36 and 14 with three guys handing on him all night. Come on, man, he’s just a great, great player.”
Davis finished with 36 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and played the final 17 minutes in pain after injuring his left ankle late in the third quarter. He took a minute to shake it off and finished the game favoring the ankle, that required treatment after the game.
These are the sorts of performances he’s turned in routinely this season, particularly since the Pelicans’ other All-Star big man, DeMarcus Cousins, went down with a season-ending Achilles injury Jan. 26.
He and Cousins were on pace to become the first pair of teammates in NBA history to each average better than 25 points and 10 rebounds. Davis is averaging 31.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks since the All-Star break, after averaging 27.4, 10.7 and 2.1 in the 51 games before the break.
So the “M-V-P” chants he heard in those final minutes against the Trail Blazers were well warranted for a player with range and versatility as a two-way performer that might be unrivaled in the league.
“I can only think of a couple guys in this league who can impact a game the way he can from end to end. It’s AD and … ” Gentry said, before a reporter blurted out the name of the other player he was thinking of, “yeah, LeBron. I mean, these guys can guard from the 3-point line to the rim and can score from those same spaces on anybody. Guys like that, wth that ability and those talents, they are just very rare.”
James and Davis (who occupy the No. 2 and 3 spots, respectively, in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder) will square off tonight at Quicken Loans Arena (8 ET, ESPN).
It’ll be another chance for Davis to be measured against the league’s standard-bearer in regards to the MVP conversation. James has four MVPs in his war chest, and could (and probably should) have a couple more. Meanwhile, Davis is still searching for his first.
At 33, James has shown a durability and staying power that Davis, 25, is also still searching for. If there is a knock on his game, it’s that he’s struggled with injuries, bumps and bruises to a degree that’s greater than you’d expect from a player as physically gifted as the 6-foot-11, 253-pound dynamo.
Tuesday night’s spill against the Trail Blazers marked the 11th time this season Davis has had to exit a game because of an injury. The reaction of the crowd, a collective hush as Davis writhed in pain under the basket, was followed by wild cheers when he got to his feet and limped to the bench.
Davis refused to go to the locker room, choosing instead to take a moment to gather himself and return to the game, knowing the severity of his injury was overshadowed by the weight of the Pelicans’ current predicament.
They need every single game to reach the postseason for just the second time in his career, the same postseason he suggested the Pelicans would have dominated had Cousins not gotten injured.
That’s why he’ll play through whatever lingering discomfort he has to against the Cavaliers tonight. The gravity of the Pelicans’ situation demands that he fight through the pain, dust himself off and get back on the floor the same way he did Tuesday night.
“Just knowing the type of situation we’re in,” Davis told reporters in New Orleans Thursday, “I just wanted to be on the floor. I felt I couldn’t leave that game, even though it was bothering me. I just tried to tough it out and just play through it.”
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The top five in the Week 24 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 30.7 points, 8.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds
Harden took a rare night off Tuesday and the Rockets still rolled over the Chicago Bulls. The Rockets are good enough to go on auto-pilot the way they’re playing. They’ve already set the franchise record for wins in a season and secured the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed … all with seven games to go in their season. Harden’s work from the start of training camp has been the catalyst for this special season for the Rockets. He worked to integrate the new additions to the lineup, but did so without sacrificing any of the things that made him the strong MVP candidate he was last season. Topping his performance from last season should be more than enough to secure his first Kia MVP. The official word will come on June 25 at the NBA Awards show. But with the way the Rockets have played down the stretch of this season with Harden leading the way, the suspense in this MVP chase has evaporated.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 27.6 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds
You have to appreciate LeBron’s admission that he would indeed vote for himself if he had a say in the race for the Kia MVP. And it’s hard to argue with his logic. Given all that the Cavaliers have endured since Kyrie Irving’s trade request was made public, it’s truly remarkable that he’s been able to compartmentalize the way he has and continue to play at an otherworldly level. If not for James Harden, LeBron would be clearing space on his mantle for his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Instead, he’ll have to settle for another season of milestones and his continued assault on nearly every career statistic the league has to offer. Not to mention he’s still on track to play all 82 games for the first time in his career. And if you were wondering how the old man (relatively speaking, of course) bounces back after tough night (18 points in Tuesday’s loss to Miami), catch the highlights from his 41-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist masterpiece in Charlotte on the second night of a back-to-back set.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Last week: No. 4
Season stats: 28.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 blocks
Back-to-back losses at Houston and at home to Portland have put Davis and the Pelicans in a familiar position in the Western Conference playoff chase. Every game until the finish is a must-win affair, with tonight’s tilt against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (8 ET, ESPN) serving as the ideal showcase for Davis. He’s been an absolute monster of late (29.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 2.4 assists in his last 10 games). He knows what it will take to push the Pelicans into the playoff mix without DeMarcus Cousins, as that is something Davis had to do three years ago to secure his lone playoff voyage. It took a home win over San Antonio on the final night of the regular season to clinch a spot and it might take the same this time around — Davis and the Pelicans finish up the regular season April 11 with a home game against the Spurs.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 23.3 points, 5.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds
Saturday’s trip game in Boston (7:30 ET, NBA TV) couldn’t have come at a better time for DeRozan and the Raptors, who still have some work to do secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Their lead over the Celtics is down to three games. Given Toronto’s recent losses to the Cavs and LA Clippers, a statement win on the road against the surging Celtics would go a long way towards resetting the Raptors’ collective confidence. DeRozan’s continued evolution as a playmaker has remained on full display (15 assists in his last two games) and will be crucial to the Raptors’ offensive effectiveness in the playoffs. That’s assuming coach Dwane Casey does indeed plan to keep his rotation as deep in the playoffs as he has all season. But the scoring prowess that has propelled DeRozan to All-Star status the past four seasons will be just as important, if not more so, given the relative inexperience of several of the Raptors’ role players. Both DeRozan and fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry know how vital it will be for them to be in a good rhythm for the postseason.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Last week: No. 5
Season stats: 26.8 points, 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds
Lillard was spectacular in a critical road win in New Orleans Tuesday night, finishing with a game-high 41 points (and nine rebounds, six assists and four steals). He did all that while out-dueling fellow MVP candidate Davis in what was a thrilling, must-see fourth quarter. It didn’t matter who was guarding Lillard — sometimes it was Davis and other times it was Pelicans defensive wiz Jrue Holiday. Lillard was locked in and on absolute fire in a playoff atmosphere. His importance to the Trail Blazers, though, was even more evident a night later when he was missing from a deflating road loss to in Memphis. Lillard missed the game for a good reason: the birth of his son. But it should be clear by now that these Trail Blazers will go only as far as the mercurial Lillard can take them in the postseason. C.J. McCollum is as good a No. 2 option as you’ll find and Terry Stotts has done Coach of the Year-caliber in developing the roster. It’s Lillard’s scoring and playmaking, however, that takes them from a solid team to a top-three seed in the Western Conference.
The next five:
6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
9. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
10. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
And five more …: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
An inside look at LaMarcus Aldridge from an Western Conference advance scout:
“I would love to know exactly what was said in the conversation he had with [Spurs coach Gregg] Pop[ovich] after last season, from both sides. Because whatever it was, it’s produced the best season I’ve seen from LA since he’s been in the league. And I’m dating that back to his best years in Portland. The Spurs aren’t close to the team they are with all of the heavy lifting he’s done this season. He’s been more physical and much more active on the defensive end than he was last season and obviously, with Kawhi Leonard missing from the lineup for basically the entire season, his responsibilities as the No. 1 option for them offensively has been tremendous. He’s always been a skilled, face-up big. Working from the L and on the baseline extended, he’s as tough a cover as you’ll find at that position.
“He embraced the other stuff, though, and perhaps at Pop’s urging. He’s made himself a more physical presence around the basket and at the rim. When he’s working in space against opposing [centers], that’s when he really has an advantage, because he’ll abuse guys his size and bigger who aren’t as mobile, guys who cannot match his quickness. He’s not an above the rim guy or a rim protector that causes you any concern, but he’s stronger than he looks and this season, he’s mixed it up more when necessary. He’s been more physical than usual. I’d suggest that’s a direct result of what Pop was trying to convey to him. Without Kawhi out there, someone had to play that role as their offensive catalyst and to do that LaMarcus was going to have to toughen up and show more fire than he did last season. I give him credit for stepping up to that challenge. I’ll admit, I was a bit of a skeptic when he was the hot free agent name a couple summers back. It’s easy to forget that. He was the player everybody wanted and the Spurs got him. And it seems like he’s finally comfortable there now in the role he’s playing leading that team right now. I’ve gained a lot of respect for him and his game with the way he’s played this season.”
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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