After 82 games that took Rip City on a roller coaster ride of emotion, from the highs (blowing out the Phoenix Suns in record-setting fashion in the opener, obliterating the league in a two month stretch [from January 16 to March 18, Portland lost only four times], Damian Lillard reaching Apex Lillard status) to the lows (struggling through the rest of 2017, Lillard meeting with team owner Paul Allen to air his thoughts, Jusuf Nurkic being inconsistent through much of the season), the 2017-18 iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers have reached the end of the regular season portion of the tracks.
Once again, due to a strong stretch of play that masked an otherwise uneven, up-and-down campaign, the Blazers were able to get into the postseason. Unlike in prior seasons under Lillard and CJ McCollum’s guiding hands, Portland was able to rise as high as No. 3 in the notoriously brutal Western Conference, a status they claimed for good when they beat down the Utah Jazz last night.
(Fun fact: the last time the Jazz were in the Moda Center before Wednesday, I was in attendance. I witnessed a 19-point defeat that felt like 35, despite Dame’s incredible display of shooting. That runs my Rose Garden/Moda Center live attendance record to a ghastly 0-9. While this loss did trigger the 13-game winning streak that helped separate the Blazers from the pack, I’m not sure I’m forgiven quite yet; if you see some burly masked men hauling away a long-haired white guy of average height from the Rose Quarter and chuck him off the Steel Bridge, odds are that’s me.)
The opponents for our intrepid band of misfits, oddities, and exuberant giant white dudes cheering from the bench are the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that is carried by its resident top-five player in the league, Anthony Davis. I say carried because Davis, the 25-year-old wunderkind and OG Unicorn, is doing everything except carrying each Pelican player on his back, and if anymore of them get injured, he may even have to do that.
True, there are other threats on the Pellies, players such as Jrue Holiday, the point guard who’s had his best season in years and is a very easy man to root for; Nikola Mirotic, the sharp-shooting Montenegrin big man who came over from the Chicago Bulls a couple months after teammate Bobby Portis punched him out and broke his jaw; Emeka Okafor, perhaps the greatest feel-good story in the NBA today, returning after four years away to rehab a spinal injury without surgery, and has played very well considering all that’s happened to him; and…well….
I’m just gonna say it: New Orleans makes Portland’s bench look like the inexhaustible engine of the Houston Rockets. Sure, Davis and Holiday are as potent a one-two punch as Lillard and McCollum, but there’s a huge difference between having your third-best player be Late Season Jusuf Nurkic and be someone like E’Twuan Moore, or an old and washed-up Rajon Rondo, or Mirotic.
After All-Star center Demarcus Cousins ruptured his left Achilles tendon (a scary injury for any basketball player, but especially for one of Cousins’ six-foot-eleven, 270-pound frame; foot problems for big men are really bad things for said big men), Davis has had to revert to being the be-all, end-all for this team, and given the talent (or lack thereof) he had surrounding him, he did a incredible job carrying Dell Demps’ collection of oldsters, scrubs, and rejects to the playoffs without Cousins flanking him for half the season.
As you nutters in Rip City read up on the team standing between our boys and the right to get bent over by the Golden State Warriors three years in a row, take a little time to get acquainted with one Anthony Davis, and exactly how much he means to the Pelicans. Time to get to know thy enemy.
GP MPG PPG FG% 3PT% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG 74 36.4 28.2 53% 34% 83% 11 2.3 1.5 2.6
PER True Shooting % Usage Rate Win Shares Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating Defensive Rebound % 29 61% 29.9% 13.6 108 103 +5.4 25%
–Defensive Rebound % is the amount of available defensive rebounds a player grabs while he’s on the court. As your local high school coach is constantly barking, a big part of defense is finishing the defensive possession with a rebound. Davis does that 25% of the time his opponent clunks a shot off the rim; those long, long arms are good for more than blocking shots into the 10th row and scratching elephant butts.
–His points per game, assists, and all his shooting stats are career highs. Davis not only carried a heavy load after Cousins’ Achilles imploded, he did so efficiently. Scary stuff.
–Davis led the league in blocks and two-point field goals, was second in points per game, total field goals and PER, fourth in Win Shares, and fifth in rebounds per game. He also was in the top 20 in 10 other categories, too. Hell, the man even was tops in fantasy points, almost a full point higher than the Ball Hog Bot 9000 known as Russell Westbrook, who just averaged a triple-double for the second straight season. Anthony Davis is a freak of nature.
–This upcoming series will feature only the fifth through eighth games (the guaranteed games, though it will likely be more) Davis has logged in an NBA postseason, which is criminal when you consider that Lillard, who was drafted in the same 2012 class as the Brow, has already played in 31 playoff games. 31 to four! It’s a Goddamned travesty!
This season has erased any doubts about Anthony Davis being a top five player in the NBA. He’s a six-foot-ten player who handles the ball like a guard, shoots like a wing, and uses his frame to deter people at the rim like the best of the big guys. He tosses up a 28-11 every night with four combined steals/blocks per game while serving as the defensive anchor for a slightly above-average defense (the Pelicans rank 14th in the NBA in Defensive Rating) that craters to Lakers-level bad when Davis sits.
When Davis came into the league, I remember thinking that his career could go one of three ways: he could never get off the ground due to injuries (this is still a concern; Davis gets nicked up very often), he could end up like Tim Duncan, a stat-stuffing machine and defensive force who won five championships, or he could be the next Kevin Garnett, a stat-stuffing defensive machine that was constantly saddled with crappy teammates and had to leave Minnesota to find his ring.
Davis is going the Garnett trajectory, and the one attempt to surround him with elite talent failed the instant Demarcus Cousins got hurt. It wouldn’t have worked anyway; New Orleans still has washed up and marginally talented players surrounding Davis and Holiday, Demps (the team’s General Manager) is barely fit to run a local McDonald’s, and Alvin Gentry has made a middling coaching career out of bastardizing Mike D’Antoni’s concepts, while D’Antoni himself is living out his fever dream in Houston watching James Harden incinerate all life on the court.
One thing to worry about, though, is that while his first Minnesota tenure was largely frustrating, Kevin Garnett did carry the Timberwolves to the conference finals one year. In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki turned into Thor for two months and hammered the entire playoff field, including the Blazers, into dust. Hot streaks by absurdly talented players can and will carry marginal teams to unexpected heights. Of the big men in the league now, I believe Kristaps Porzingis will one day channel his inner Dirk. A healthy Joel Embiid should scare the East poopless as long as he can stay healthy.
And Anthony Davis is long, long, long overdue for a proper playoff arrival.
Damian Lillard better bring his A game.