Hands up if you picked the New Orleans Pelicans to become the first team to land in the second round of the 2018 playoffs, as well as the only squad to advance with broomsticks in tow.
Anyone? Hello? Bueller?
Anthony Davis was a wrecking ball throughout the first-round clash with the overmatched Portland Trail Blazers with his jaw-dropping 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.8 blocks per game while shooting 57.6 percent from the field and playing fantastic, versatile defense. Fun fact: Though he only has eight career postseason games under his belt, his lifetime average of 32.3 points per game in the playoffs leaves him in the same realm as Michael Jordan's record: 33.5.
But despite the individual dominance that might make him the MVP of the league's extracurriculars thus far, Davis hasn't been operating as a solo star. A beardless Nikola Mirotic has refused to miss shots from the perimeter while holding his own defensively. Jrue Holiday thoroughly outplayed Damian Lillard on both ends of the floor, leading ESPN.com's Zach Lowe to write the following: "Holiday has been way better than that [a second sometime-star] in the playoffs, but he won't maintain this level. I mean, if he did, he'd basically be Michael Jordan."
Yes, that's now two players on the bayou-based roster who have been directly compared to the GOAT candidate not named LeBron James. And that's good news for the Pelicans, given the inevitably ramped-up difficulty of their ensuing matchup with the Golden State Warriors, who dispatched of the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs in a five-game series.
The Blazers, for all the star power of their high-powered backcourt, simply don't provide the same type of test as the defending champions. Now, the ultimate boss battle awaits the surging Pelicans in the second round as they look to end the Dubs' dynastic dominance and ensure someone else represents the Western Conference for the first time since the Spurs took home the 2014 title.
At first blush, the regular-season matchups between these two foes appear to heavily favor the No. 2 seed. They came to blows four times during the first 82 contests, and the Warriors emerged victoriously in three of those outings:
- Oct. 20: Warriors 128, Pelicans 120 in New Orleans
- Nov. 25: Warriors 110, Pelicans 95 in Golden State
- Dec. 4: Warriors 125, Pelicans 115 in New Orleans
- April 7: Pelicans 126, Warriors 120 in Golden State
However, none of those results should have much bearing on the upcoming battle.
Both teams were at full strength for the first contest, while Kevin Durant missed the second one. Anthony Davis received a DNP during the Dubs' 10-point December win, while Stephen Curry was recovering from an injury of his own when the Pelicans earned their lone victory. In other words, not a single one of those four outings serves as an accurate representation of the personnel these teams will have at their disposal in late April and early May.
Curry should be able to make some sort of impact when he returns to action, while the Pelicans have risen to an even higher level since DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the year with an Achilles rupture. Boogie battled in each of the first three outings, so we can throw those out.
To be clear, this isn't a knock against Cousins, who remains one of the league's brightest talents at center. But addition by subtraction is a reality in some situations, and Lowe accurately described why that might be the case here:
"As uncomfortable as it is to say, New Orleans' raging success in these playoffs has to change that calculus. The Pelicans look better, faster, stingier, more versatile with Davis at center, Jrue Holiday in an elevated role, and Nikola Mirotic spacing the floor for Davis' borderline pornographic rim runs.
"... New Orleans was better all season with Davis going solo. The twin towers setup shoehorned Cousins into a point-center role. He fared about as well as anyone could have hoped. He is supremely talented—unstoppable bulldozing the rim, accurate from three-point range, a creative, pinpoint passer who can bring the ball up. A lot of his ground-bound, skill-based game can withstand a decline in athleticism.
"He also hemorrhaged turnovers at a record pace, and too often failed to get back on defense. There are some diminishing returns in dispatching the league's most unguardable post player since Shaq to the perimeter—fewer post-ups, the evaporation of Cousins' beastly offensive rebounding. Davis also had to defend stretchier players farther from the rim, negating at least a bit of his otherworldly shot-blocking."
That's even more crucial in this particular matchup.
You don't beat the Warriors by trying to bully them in the paint. Instead, you have to adapt to their style—switching on everything defensively to ensure contested three-point looks while attacking with a free-flowing, up-tempo flow that coaxes them into mistakes of their own. A Davis-led team is a better matchup than one with twin-tower stylings, even if it's operating with less talent in a vacuum.
But that still relies upon Davis playing at a Herculean level.
Can Anthony Davis Keep It Up?
Lately, the unibrowed big has been operating like a man possessed. He's closer to performing like the best basketballer in the world than not, leaving destruction in his wake on both ends of the court. His cuts to the hoop are as violent as they are effective, and they're downright unstoppable when he's coupling them with jumpers that tickle twine.
Pair that with ceaseless havoc-wreaking plays on defense—seriously, it's not fair that a preternatural shot-blocker also has the lateral quickness necessary to switch onto guards—and you have the complete package. The Pelicans have outscored opponents by a staggering 12.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, and that somehow doesn't feel even remotely fluky.
Why? Because it's hard to pinpoint the area in which he's most dominant.
Maybe this seems strange to say about a man scoring at historic levels, but the leading facet of his game almost has to be defense these days. And even there, Davis isn't confined to a prototypical role.
He's a devastating rim-protector who faces more shots per game within six feet than anyone in the postseason not named John Henson (warning: two-game-sample alert for the Milwaukee Bucks center). He's hedging out against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and stopping them in their tracks, preventing them from even sniffing the painted area (see below). He's closing out against spot-up shooters and making perfect rotations for weakside help.
Nekias Duncan @NekiasNBA
3) POR has the right idea -- extend the action and force the bigs to hold their own in space. The issue: Anthony Davis isn't your typical big man. The Spain PnR goes nowhere. Peep Moore ignore ET in the corner. Can argue there's a window for a pass to Nurkic, but good luck. https://t.co/Xub9ffeHlW
Rudy Gobert—or, if you're feeling cheeky, Joel Embiid—probably remains the NBA's best interior defender. Guys like Andre Roberson, Josh Richardson, Robert Covington, Jimmy Butler and Paul George thrive on the wings and at the point of attack. But the entire court has become Davis' domain, and that versatility makes him a compelling Defensive Player of the Year candidate who's somehow elevating his game during the league's second season.
Of course, all of this has to continue against the Warriors.
That's a tougher task, even from the most basic statistical level. According to 82games.com, the Blazers have allowed opposing 4s and 5s to post respective PERs of 17.8 and 21.4, respectively. But those numbers drop to 15.6 and 18.8 for Golden State—a natural trend for a team employing one of the league's elite big-man defenders in Draymond Green.
Still, let's assume Davis just keeps thriving against a different cast of adversaries. The world's best players are often matchup-proof, and the Brow has unquestionably been performing at such a level since Cousins' injury.
Even in that scenario, he'd need help.
Can the Supporting Cast Keep It Up?
Eight Pelicans logged at least 10 minutes per game during the first-round sweep. And of that octet, E'Twaun Moore is the only man with a lower postseason true shooting percentage (49.9) than the mark he produced throughout the regular season (59.3).
As you can see below, most of the increases are only marginal. But a few are noteworthy:
We're not too concerned with Solomon Hill's numbers, considering he recorded only 14.5 minutes per game against Rip City and suited up in just 12 regular-season contests. But the strides made by Holiday and Mirotic deserve further examination, particularly since the former got more efficient while also shouldering a larger burden of the offensive pie—a trend that runs counter to the typical tradeoffs between volume and efficiency.
It also runs against the grain when looking at playoff history in general. As Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu pointed out, roughly three-quarters of postseason performers logging at least 1,000 minutes since 1980 have seen declines in their true shooting percentages from the regular season.
So is regression inevitable for the Robins to Davis' Batman War Machines to Davis' Iron Man?
Holiday was phenomenal against the Blazers in averaging 27.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game as he made a mockery of his individual matchup with Lillard. But can we really expect him to take over contests so thoroughly against an even tougher opponent, especially if Klay Thompson is assigned to him in a bit of cross-matching from Golden State head coach Steve Kerr?
Mirotic, meanwhile, was more notable for his shooting percentages than his per-game output. His 18.3 points per contest came while he connected on 57.1 percent of his field-goal attempts, 46.2 percent of his treys and 83.3 percent of his looks at the striipe—figures that seem unsustainable unless he's pulling off some sort of reverse-Samson magic.
This isn't meant to discredit what the secondary stars did throughout the first round. No one can take that dominance away from them. But maintaining that level of play against a superior defensive squad—Golden State and Portland posted identical defensive ratings in the regular season, but the former did so while playing largely injured and uninspired—is a big ask.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, even the slightest slippage is problematic.
This isn't a particularly deep team, even when Rajon Rondo is in full "playoff Rondo" mode and the role-playing snipers are connecting from the corners. Its depth doesn't stack up against the full brunt of the Warriors, which is why it sat at No. 16 in bench net rating during the regular season (minus-0.6) while playing the fifth-fewest minutes and now falls in at minus-4.5 through the opening round.
If Curry, Green, Durant or Thompson falters, the Warriors have other stars who can assume heavier burdens. If role players such as Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston fail to pass muster, they have other reserves.
The Pelicans have no such luxuries.
Davis underperforming is an automatic death knell, and the rotation doesn't have the upside necessary to counteract stark declines from the key secondary figures. Holiday and Mirotic have to defy the odds in order to stay alive.
Before the playoffs started, I predicted the Pelicans would advance after winning Game 7 against the Blazers (right result, wrong length), while the Warriors would move past the Spurs in six contests (so close!). From there, I had the Dubs gaining entry into the Western Conference Finals for the fourth consecutive season, dropping only a single game in the process.
I'm not ready to back off that stance, even if I'm willing to cede an additional loss from the defending champions.
Plenty of factors could certainly engineer a different result, the most prominent of which is continuing injury concerns for Curry. As Kerr explained before Golden State's Game 4 loss to San Antonio, per SFGate.com's Connor Letourneau: "Steph's not going to play anytime soon. He's coming along well. He looked good in practice. ... He's feeling healthy, getting better. He still has a few limitations that he's trying to work through, but no pain. I think he's on track. I can't put a timetable on it, but I think he’s coming along really well."
But as Letourneau also noted, the team is still hoping he's able to return for the conference semifinals against the Pelicans. These concerns may be nothing more than a smokescreen designed to decrease expectations and avoid any sky-is-falling cries if Curry is unable to suit up in Game 1.
And yet, even if the All-NBA point guard is missing, the Warriors should still remain favorites. They've earned a (team-worst) 2.9 net rating without Curry in the regular season and have basically quadrupled that number during the playoffs. More importantly, they're a team designed to give the hot-shooting Pelicans trouble with their depth and switch-happy defensive identity.
New Orleans has earned respect. It should be counted on to pull off at least one upset during the second round, and it has a puncher's chance if Holiday and Mirotic somehow avoid regression.
But the Warriors are still the heavy favorites.