The eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference wasn’t supposed to belong to the New Orleans Pelicans. The presumption around the NBA for most of the season was that the Oklahoma City Thunder would eventually return to full strength and snag the eighth seed from the Pellies, who weren’t supposed to have enough coaching expertise, experience or depth to be able to actually pull off their improbable playoff run.
And yet, New Orleans managed to pull it off in impressive fashion. The young Pelicans were able to take down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs even in the face of a “win and get in” scenario during the season’s final game.
That’s about as much pressure as there can be for a team with no experience in that type of situation, but just as the Pelicans did all season, they persevered and steadily stayed the course, holding off a blistering second-half comeback attempt from the Spurs after building a double-digit lead at halftime.
Anthony Davis carried New Orleans once again, pouring in 31 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to go along with two steals and three blocks. A pair of those blocks came in the last minute of the game, when New Orleans was nursing a seven-point lead, and Davis subsequently erased a Kawhi Leonard fadeaway then a layup attempt from Boris Diaw, putting a lid around the rim in case San Antonio really believed they might pull off the comeback.
The Spurs often do make opposing teams pay with second-half surges like the one they tried to put over on the Pelicans, and they’re very rarely turned away by one player the way Davis was able to Wednesday night. The performance from the young forward and his team was something special, especially considering San Antonio was playing for a chance at the No. 2 seed, no chump prize. They deserve to be in the playoffs.
Anyone out there thinking otherwise, that some other team like the Thunder might have somehow “deserved” a berth more than the Pelicans––an absurd idea even in concept––hasn’t paid attention to what New Orleans went through this season. This is a team that at times this year has given large portions of its bench minutes to Alexis Ajinca, Austin Rivers, Jimmer Fredette and Luke Babbitt. Dante Cunningham, who was signed off the street in December, is sixth on the team in minutes. The Pelicans were also without Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for a combined 98 games this season.
Like any other NBA team, New Orleans has been through it this year––their luck and hard work has simply been good enough to get them into the postseason, which should be proof enough alone that they “deserve” it as much as the next group of guys. Tom Benson wasn’t cutting this group any breaks; according to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, this team’s perseverance saved the jobs of coach Monty Williams and GM Dell Demps:
Ownership gave GM Dell Demps and Monty Williams preseason mandate to make playoffs to keep jobs, w/ no allowance for injuries. They made it.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) April 16, 2015
Obviously, Davis carried the Pelicans all season, and if the team had clinched a playoff berth prior to the last day of the year, it would be interesting to see if he was perceived any differently in the MVP race. The Brow did miss 14 games due to injury, but in the 68 games he played, he was certainly among the NBA’s most impactful players, leading the league in blocks, PER, and finishing fifth in Real Plus-Minus, all according to ESPN. His two blocks in the last minute against the Spurs were both plays that virtually no one else would ever have been able to make, and it was his buzzer-beating three-pointer in early February that gave NOLA the playoff tiebreaker over OKC, which eventually proved to be the determining factor for the final spot.
Davis is certainly one of the best, if not the best, under-25 player in the league, but some of his more tenured teammates came through with solid performances this season to help push the Pelicans toward the postseason. Tyreke Evans played in 79 games, which was a big deal in and of itself, but the bigger deal was that the last 50 of them came at a very high level of efficiency, something Evans has struggled to find during his time in the league. Despite being NOLA’s best––and sometimes only––perimeter option, Evans scored and distributed at a serviceable clip without turning the ball over too much. Evans’s ability to play either wing position also gave Monty Williams some much-needed lineup flexibility, especially when Holiday was out, and he played Gordon at point guard for much of that time.
Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson, Davis’s frontcourt mates, have also proven to be the ideal counterparts that Demps hoped they’d be. When Houston was trying to clear Asik off the books last offseason, Demps scooped him up in hopes that he’d help preserve Davis’s body and allow him to play his more natural power forward position, and the combination has worked out beautifully.
The same can be said for Anderson, who’s in his third season with the club, but he missed almost all of the 2013-14 season with an injury. This year Anderson has been able to play in 61 games, and even though he shot just 34 percent from three-point range, he still garners a ton of respect from opposing defenses, giving Davis the room he needs to operate below the three-point line when the two of them share the floor together. While the Brow can do it all, Asik and Anderson give him the perfect defense- and offense-oriented complements depending on the type or time of game.
The Pelicans’ reward for all of this will be a playoff series against the historic Golden State Warriors, who finished the regular season at 67-15. While an upset seems unlikely, who knows? Some believe the Warriors are fallible, and when you have a guy like Anthony Davis on your squad, anything feels possible.
For right now, though, New Orleans’ playoff run is a great story of a deserving team, and the best part is a chance to see a player like Davis get his chance in the playoffs for the first time.