For probably the first time in Anthony Davis‘ career he cost the Pelicans a win. Often when an NBA Superstar simply don’t put the team on their back, or they fail to produce a positive impact we say the same thing. Tonight it wasn’t that Davis failed to make an impact, it’s that his impact actually hindered the team.
The New Orleans Pelicans (37-34) initially hit the Houston Rockets (48-23) exactly where they hurt. James Harden is currently the MVP frontrunner and bases his offensive game on his ability to get to the line. The Pelicans succeeded in playing very conservative defense and Harden couldn’t get to the line for the first eleven minutes of the first quarter. The Pelicans went on a 15-4 at one point, frustrating the Rockets and forcing them into terrible desperation shots.
“Return” was the central theme of this game. Dwight Howard, Omer Asik, and Tyreke Evans came back to their respective teams after missing over 30 collective games together. The Pelicans six core players have played exactly 12 games together this season, so getting at least a few key players back for tonight was essential to their playoff aspirations.
Mar 25, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer (33) steals the ball from New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans (1) during the second quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The Pelicans were able to control the pace for most of the first. Tyreke Evans was absolutely engaged against Harden and stopped him from ever bullying his way to the rim. On offense Evans had one of those games where he randomly decides to shoot 60+% form three and confuse defenders who were told to sag off him.
The Pelicans shot over 40% better than the Rockets throughout the first quarter and outscored them 34-19. New Orleans was in perfect position to ride their extensive early lead to a victory, but they lost complete momentum in the second quarter.
They began the second quarter trading baskets with the Rockets, but quickly lost their initial lead. Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza were also instrumental in Houston’s comeback. They would end the game with a combined 47 points, 17 rebounds, and 5 steals while shooting 65% from the field and 57% from three.
Houston was able to dominate the 2nd quarter for a multitude of reasons. Firstly their energy outmatched the Pelicans which led to an absence of loose balls and gave Houston far too many offensive rebounds. By halftime they would have secured twice as many rebounds as New Orleans, feeding directly into their efficiency based offensive system.
When Houston out-rebounds you it takes an enormous toll on your defense. Their system encourages Harden to barrel at the rim or launch threes, and when Houston gets offensive rebounds it allows him to repeatedly force himself at the rim until the referees give in and make a call. This strategy allowed the Rockets to decimate the Pelicans lead, and outscore them 30-18 by halftime.
Mar 25, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives between New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik (3) and forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
On the other side the Pelicans failed to achieve the same momentum they benefited from in the first. Eric Gordon was 0/3 form deep and 0/5 form the floor, leaving the Pelicans with a lack of proper spacing and continuously hurting their rhythm.
In addition, Anthony Davis struggled to make his free throws, and ended the game only 6/14 form the stripe. Davis is very good at forcing calls when the Pelican’s offense stagnates, but when he can’t hit free throws that skill is rendered useless. Simply shooting his season average form the line would have netted the Pelicans an additional 5 free points in tonight’s two point loss.
The Pelicans were able to rally in the 4th, but only after a jolt to their momentum. Anthony Davis went down with an apparent shoulder injury five minutes into the final quarter, and his return form the locker room two minutes later inspired the Pelicans to cut into Houston’s glaring lead.
Mar 25, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) holds his shoulder after falling on the court during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Davis left the game, but returned shortly after suffering the apparent injury. The Rockets defeated the Pelicans 95-93. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Asik recovered a miss, and dunked the ball to bring the Pelicans within five in the final few minutes. The game was starting to look ugly but the Pelicans managed to bring themselves to within three in the last 30 seconds. Anthony Davis was fouled and went to the line with an opportunity to bring them within one. Sadly, Davis missed the first and left the line visibly frustrated.
Luckily for the Pelicans Harden also spit a pair of late game free throws and the Pelicans found themselves down three for the final possession. Gordon checked into the game and despite his absent shooting ability Monty Williams drew up the final play for him.
The Rockets were clearly going to send Gordon to line since they were up by three. Gordon received the ball and elected to dribble into the defense instead of going straight up. Gordon should have baited Brewer into fouling him behind the line, which would have given the Pelicans three free throws, and likely forced an overtime. Instead he put the ball on the floor and was unable to dissolve Houston’s lead.
Davis walked off the court in silence, incensed by his inability to score form the line. If he had been more reliable tonight the Pelicans would have won by a comfortable margin, and they would be one less game back from the Western Conference promise land. Hopefully nights like tonight serve to motivate Davis, and hopefully we won’t see many more like it throughout his career.
The Pelicans have now lost four straight games, and sit at 10th place in the west. It would take a miracle for them to make the playoffs, but it’s still to early to definitively count them out.