In the dead of November, more than a month removed from the NBA's opening night, with the playoffs still a galaxy away, certain games are hyped up to be something they're not.
There was nothing artificial or forced about the stakes in the Los Angeles Lakers' 114-110 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night.
It was technically just another game, just another 1.2 percent of a long schedule. But the outcome meant something to everybody involved. Davis, the Pelicans, the city of New Orleans, even the Lakers as a whole—it meant something to everyone.
And now that it's over, now that this first meeting as foes is behind player and team and city, everyone can move on.
Closure isn't that simple, of course. Wednesday night will be talked about and dissected in the days to come. Davis' next game against the Pelicans, on Jan. 3 in Los Angeles, will be peddled as an event. So, too, will their meetings on Feb. 25 and March 1. That's how this machine works.
Wednesday night still offered some variation of finality, precisely because it was the beginning. This marked Davis' first return to New Orleans since he orchestrated his move to Hollywood, a long, drawn-out breakup that spanned nearly five months and ruined any chance of a semi-amicable split.
What follows will be a new normal, the next meeting in a long line of many. This was the icebreaker, the reintroduction of Davis as an official opponent rather than the Area Man Who Doesn't Want to Be Here he became last season.
The emotions and tension Wednesday matched the fallout. Davis did not try to deflect the significance of his return. Nor did Pelicans fans.
Boos rained down from the moment he came out of the tunnel:
More followed whenever he touched the ball. Even more still came with him at the foul line. There was an audible, collective groan when he intercepted Jrue Holiday's inbounds pass to Brandon Ingram late in the fourth quarter to seal the Lakers' victory.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Davis had racked up 41 points, nine rebounds, three steals and one block on 15-of-30 shooting. He was minus-six on the night, but the Lakers won, and he made history:
Taken at face value, Davis bested the Pelicans, perhaps on some level even validating his decision to abscond for Hollywood. But this game was bigger than a singular victory.
In the moment, it mattered who won. That much was clear. In the aftermath, though, the game itself was the milestone. The outcome was only ever going to be a bonus for the victor.
Davis no longer needs validation for his decision to leave New Orleans. The timing of his demand will remain a sore spot. Pushing the Pelicans to act right before last February's trade deadline, when they couldn't explore the full scope of suitors and didn't know where their draft pick would land, short-circuited their season—and the Lakers', too.
But the decision itself needs no defense.
The Lakers are a league-best 16-2. Their defense has slipped in recent weeks. Offenses that space the floor are giving them problems. But they're still a top-10 defense overall, with a top-three offense and net rating to boot, and Davis is mounting a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Some will be more inclined to roll with the Los Angeles Clippers or Milwaukee Bucks as their championship picks. The Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets might get some primary love, too. That's fine. The Lakers are still among the top title contenders.
That is Davis' validation, and Los Angeles' championship chase now becomes the bigger story—the only story. He has what he wanted.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, have what they needed. It's not what they asked for but instead what became painfully necessary: a fresh start.
Their 1-7 record to open the season still looms large, but the playoffs are not yet out of reach. They're 5-5 over their past 10 games with a top-12 offense and a not-as-hopeless defense. That they led for most of Wednesday night despite a deficit of size is a small testament to what they can still be this season:
Mason Ginsberg @MasonGinsberg
After tonight, the Pelicans' starting lineup of Jrue, JJ, BI, Kenrich, & Hayes has played 68 minutes together. Of lineups that have played 65+ minutes, they are tied for the second highest net rating (+21.3) with the 76ers' starters, trailing only the Bucks. (via @nbastats)
Ingram was neutralized by LeBron James, but he remains a favorite to win Most Improved Player. Jaxson Hayes wants for discipline, but he runs the floor, works to set screens and plays his behind off on defense even when he's making the wrong reads.
Kenrich Williams' three-ball is slowly but surely starting to fall, and the Pelicans can line him up against borderline bigs on defense. JJ Redick's offense is ageless.
Jrue Holiday is playing at a top-25 level again. He dropped 29 points and 12 assists against the Lakers while defending pretty much everyone, including James and Davis:
Better days aren't just a possibility. They're imminent and inevitable.
New Orleans isn't even at full strength yet. Lonzo Ball is still working his way into a groove after missing six of the previous nine games and sitting Wednesday with an illness. Derrick Favors has missed the past six games with back issues. Zion Williamson has yet to make his NBA debut following right knee surgery.
Maybe the Pelicans would wallow after squandering a chance to spoil the return of the player who spurned them if they didn't have a promising and immediate foundation in place. But they do.
This absence of persisting drama and awkwardness shows. Davis and Holiday swapped jerseys after the Lakers' victory:
And Davis even visited New Orleans' locker room:
Rare is the high-profile breakup that's so ready for reconciliation. One side always tends to hold a grudge. The jilted are usually the last to move on. The Pelicans may never forgive the terms of Davis' exit, but they have no reason to live in the past—to harp on what could have been and all that was taken from them.
In this case, maybe closure really is that simple.
Former New York Knick and Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck,” to discuss the era of the multi-sport athlete, the effect of the NBA on youth basketball, the New York Knicks, and Kevin Durant.