Blisteringly fast offensive sets. Lights-out three-point shooting. MVP-like detonations from Anthony Davis. Supporting explosion from Jrue Holiday. Wins over established championship contenders.
This is what the New Orleans Pelicans' season was supposed to be. It's also everything their season hasn't been.
Next to nothing has gone their way. From injuries to general underachieving to more injuries, New Orleans' 2015-16 campaign has been one long line of disappointments—a smoldering heap of mistakes and setbacks and performances that bear little resemblance to the fringe contender the Pelicans thought they had on their hands.
But on Thursday night, against an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that is vying for a title, something finally went the Pelicans' way. New Orleans exited Smoothie King Center with a 123-119 victory, besting Oklahoma City's finest in a game of who could score more points while not playing an iota of defense.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were their usual ridiculous selves. Durant flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks. Westbrook went absolutely bananas, even by his own standards, erupting for 44 points and nine assists on 15-of-25 shooting, including a 3-of-5 showing from three-point land.
These otherworldly lines should be telltale signs of a Thunder victory. But Serge Ibaka was Oklahoma City's only other player to score in double figures, and the bench was outscored by New Orleans' second unit 60-20.
Even with the game unfolding at a frenetic pace, it often looked and felt like a slog for the Thunder. As ESPN.com's Royce Young pointed out:
Amazing how many simple, controllable things get the Thunder beat. Two possessions this quarter sloppy box outs results in two points.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) February 26, 2016
Nothing went right for them on the defensive end. The starting lineup posted a net rating of minus-30.3, and the Thunder now have the third-worst defense this side of the NBA's All-Star break. As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley observed, it's become commonplace for them to completely check out on that end:
OKC's decision to abandon anything related to defense still puzzles me.— Zach Buckley (@ZachBuckleyNBA) February 26, 2016
To the Pelicans' credit, they didn't make life particularly easy on the Thunder.
Davis went after them early, taking 12 shots and totaling 16 points in the first quarter alone. He ended the night with an MVP-esque 30 points, six rebounds, two assists, one steal and four blocks—one of which sent a tremor of fear down the back of every single Pelicans fan:
Ryan Anderson used a 14-point second frame to spark a 26-point outing. The Thunder sent bodies flying in his direction anytime he squared up from behind the arc. Anderson responded by attacking off the dribble; four of his 11 makes came inside the restricted area.
Holiday left reality in the rear view during the fourth. He went off for 10 of his 22 points, including two big treys that helped keep Oklahoma City at arm's length:
Norris Cole did pretty much all of his damage through the first three quarters, totaling 21 points and seven assists ahead of the final period. Toney Douglas pitched in 12 points and two assists of his own.
Though the Pelicans lost the battle in the paint (54-46), they thoroughly won the war from long range. They shot a scintillating 60 percent from distance (12-of-20) and drilled all but two of their deep-ball attempts in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, as the players walked off the court, with the Thunder tasked with digesting their third loss in four tries and the Pelicans charged with reflecting upon an encouraging victory, Davis was left to answer a tough question.
Where has this been all season?
"We just come out sometimes and just be lackadaisical," he told TNT's Craig Sager. "I think we just wake up for big games, and we got to learn how to do that in games that we play [against] under-.500 opponents—or whoever we play, it doesn't matter. We gotta come out and play the same way we played tonight."
It's unreasonable to expect wins like this from the Pelicans on a regular basis. They aren't built for it. They have Anthony Davis and, at times, a scary offense, but they're short of defensive talent and almost devoid of healthy bodies in general.
You know it's touch-and-go when Dante Cunningham is your workhorse, per Bourbon Street Shots' Mason Ginsberg:
Your #Pelicans minutes leader tonight?— Mason Ginsberg (@MasonGinsberg) February 26, 2016
You guessed it... Dante Cunningham!
Help isn't on the way, either.
Tyreke Evans (knee) and Quincy Pondexter (knee) are done for the season. Eric Gordon (finger) hasn't played since Jan. 19. Omer Asik is dealing with a sore ankle. Unexpected midseason bright spot Bryce Dejean-Jones is now on the shelf with a fractured right wrist.
Sporadic, convincing, unsustainable wins like this are as good as it can get for the Pelicans. Davis' 59-point, 20-rebound shellacking of the Detroit Pistons. A gutsy, grind-it-out 100-96 victory over the Utah Jazz on Feb. 10. That's what they have.
More than five games separate them from the West's eighth and final playoff spot with 25 left to play, and they haven't enjoyed a winning streak that's spanned longer than three tilts all season.
All of this makes it difficult to reconcile what the Pelicans were supposed to be, what they actually are and whether they should be something else.
It's tempting to toss around the word "tank" right about now.
Rest Davis. Let the banged-up bodies heal. Drum up the value of your draft pick. Plan on pushing through to the offseason with some cap space and a potential top-five pick.
That's not especially appealing for obvious reasons. But New Orleans is also stuck in the middle of the NBA's cellar—too far down to climb much higher, too far up to fall much lower.
The Pelicans have the Association's seventh-worst record. Five games stand between them and top-five lottery odds. The race to the bottom is once again fierce, and just as the Pelicans don't have the tools necessary to clinch a playoff berth, they lack the incentive to do anything else.
There is a time and a place to dive deeper into this team's future, dissecting the roster's keepers and expendables while mapping out free-agency and draft-day plans that, hopefully, consist of finding a new home for the four years remaining on Asik's contract.
Now is not that time. This season is not that season. If the Pelicans are lucky, save for a few fond memories of Davis ripping defenses to shreds, this year won't be a harbinger of anything.
That's the reality of New Orleans' situation—the knowledge that wins like this one over the Thunder, while welcomed respites from a season run afoul, can't do anything to salvage this year or simplify the road ahead.
The Pelicans' relationship with the future, much like their ties to the present, is complicated.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.