Anthony Davis in midst of his best stretch of season as Pelicans embark on key road trip

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

As the marathon sixth-month, 82-game NBA regular season progresses, some players tire later in the campaign, perhaps partly the result of fatigue or wear and tear from the physical grind. The opposite has been true for Anthony Davis.

During Davis’ first six pro seasons, his scoring average increased after the All-Star break every year except in 2014-15, when it dipped marginally from 24.5 to 24.0. In every other instance, the five-time All-Star’s production has spiked in March and April, including last season, when he averaged 29.8 points and 11.8 rebounds over 24 post-break appearances, leading New Orleans to a playoff berth.

This season, with the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte still five-plus weeks away, it appears Davis’ perennial second-half surge has arrived earlier than usual. Since the calendar flipped to a new year last week, the 25-year-old has averaged 32.0 points, 15.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.0 blocks, while shooting a scorching 58.1 percent from the field.

“I mean, he’s playing at such a high level,” Pelicans fourth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said after Davis averaged 37.0 points and 13.0 rebounds on a 2-0 homestand. “He’s been doing it really the whole year. And he’s really picked up his rebounding, especially his offensive rebounding. He’s done a good job of going to the offensive boards, not always getting them, but keeping balls alive. He’s playing great.”

In addition to averaging a career-high 3.4 offensive rebounds per game this season, Davis is having the best passing season of his NBA career. The University of Kentucky product handed out seven assists Wednesday vs. Cleveland, the eighth time this season he’s distributed seven-plus assists. Prior to ’18-19, Davis only had a total of three such games in his first six pro seasons. The top four assist games of his NBA career have all come this season, topped by nine assists vs. Dallas on Dec. 5.

“(The Cavs) were trying to double me early on post-ups, so I was just trying to make plays for other guys,” Davis explained of his high-assist night. “I just let the game come to me. I never want to force the game or be selfish. When the shots come to me, I’m capable of shooting them. If I feel like it’s going to be a bad shot, I try to swing it and get my teammates involved.”

“I’ve been really impressed with the assists,” Gentry said on his weekly WRNO 99.5 FM radio show. “He’s made great plays when he’s been double-teamed, and we haven’t shot the ball as well as we could have, otherwise those assists would be up (even more).”

Even if that’s the case, New Orleans is leading the NBA in offensive efficiency in January (127.0 points per 100 possessions), as well as net rating (17.6). Heading into what could be a pivotal five-game road trip that stops in Minnesota, Los Angeles (Clippers), Golden State, Portland and Memphis, the Pelicans are very confident in their offensive firepower, but the key to improving on a 5-16 road mark will likely need to come on defense. New Orleans is 16th this month in defense, still not ideal but a jump from its previous performance.

“We need to keep playing defensively,” Davis said while looking ahead to the Pelicans’ longest trek of the season, based on number of days. “Of course we’ve got a lot of good (opponents) on this road trip, starting in Minnesota. They’re a great team that is playing well right now. The Clippers are playing well. Golden State is Golden State. It’s always tough to play in Portland, and then end it in Memphis. All of those teams, we feel like we can play with in any situation, any environment, but we have to keep doing it defensively. All of those teams like to run – except for Memphis, they like a more slow-paced game – but we have to impose our will on both ends of the floor, and that starts with defense.”

Entering Friday’s games, New Orleans (20-22) is No. 12 in the Western Conference, but will have a chance Saturday to move up at least one spot if it can defeat Minnesota (20-21, hosts Dallas on Friday). The Pelicans are nearly at full strength with Nikola Mirotic returning Wednesday from an ankle injury, giving them a better chance to make strides in an area that’s been problematic since starting 4-0, when both Elfrid Payton and Mirotic were healthy.

“It’s always good to have a healthy team, but I think what we’re doing now is playing well defensively,” Davis said of a Pelicans three-game winning streak. “We’re locked in defensively and getting stops. If we’re able to play defensively the way we have the last three games, we’re able to win every game, and play against anybody.”