Anthony Davis and his teammates had been left for dead. Local media personalities proclaimed it from the mountaintops as early as January. The New Orleans Pelicans were mathematically eliminated on January 9th, just 36 games into the season according to one esteemed mathematician. That was before injuries took out Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and AD for long stretches. The undertaker was lurking, half written obituary in hand.
This season was rumored throughout national and local media circles as the final test for Monty Williams and Dell Demps. Pass/Fail were the only possible outcomes. Make the playoffs and they can stick around. Miss them, regardless of injuries, and the door is right there, don't let it hit you where the good Lord split you.
Ownership gave GM Dell Demps and Monty Williams preseason mandate to make playoffs to keep jobs, w/ no allowance for injuries. They made it.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) April 16, 2015
All the pressure in the world was on the Pelicans tonight. The San Antonio Spurs road an 11 game winning streak and a 21-3 record into the Crescent City. Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and the rest of the defending champions wanted this game. The second seed and home court until the Western Conference Finals was their prize. It showed as Kawhi Leonard (38), Tony Parker (35), Boris Diaw (34), and Tim Duncan (33) all played near a playoff load.
The Pelicans reached out and took a trip to the playoffs. It was not gifted to them. The Spurs did not lay down. Davis reached his long arms out there and snatched the victory for himself.
First Quarter - Pelicans ride fans to a big lead
Electric. The Smoothie King Center was absolutely humming all game long. The game began slowly for the Pelicans and the Spurs were out to an early 4-0 lead. An Omer Asik dunk finally got New Orleans going and we were off. Everything on the court was difficult. The officials, understanding the meaning of the game and how each team would approach things, wisely elected to let the teams play. This was thankfully retained throughout the game. Regular season fouls were just contact ignored. Pushing, holding, and grabbing off the ball was liberally applied by both teams. Asik and Duncan looked like two kaiju battling over a meal for every single post-up by the Big Fundamental.
This played to the Pelicans advantage. A game with flow allows the crowd to stay up. New Orleans fans understood what the Pels needed all game long, even if the man running the in-game soundtrack was clueless. (Seriously, stop playing DAYO! Stop it. Now.) This city gets a bad wrap as a "bad" basketball town. Once upon a time that was also true for New Orleans Saints fans, shown almost exclusively wearing paper bags over their heads. Given the opportunity to support a winner, residents of the Big Easy filled the Blender to capacity.
The Pelicans took their first lead at 10-8 with 7:48 to go in the quarter. They took the lead for good at 14-12 after two Anthony Davis free throws put them back up with 5:50 remaining. Yes, the Pelicans led for over 42 consecutive minutes. Every Pelican fan sat on pins and needles anyway. This is the Spurs we're talking about.
Jrue Holiday entered the game and immediately scored. His minutes limit was hypothetically 15 tonight. He played 25 and Monty Williams needed every second of calm decision making and suffocating defense from him. 11 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and zero turnovers is not in the cards for Toney Douglas in a game like this one. An interesting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Dante Cunningham, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis began to stretch a lead. An Anderson 3-pointer and Holiday buzzer beater capped off a 14-1 run to end the first quarter.
Second Quarter - Norris Cole Attacks
Norris Cole entered the game like a meteor landing in Lake Pontchartrain. Giving Tyreke Evans a chance to sit with two fouls Cole literally took over the game, scoring all 13 of his points and chipping in a steal and a block for good measure. All six made shots came within 16 feet as he flew down the court for layups in transition and punished the Spurs for rotating early in pick and roll coverage. The lead grew as large as 23 with 4:35 remaining. Cole scored 13 of 15 Pelican points during a six minute stretch. That actually happened.
Predictably the Spurs kept pounding away at the rock and Tony Parker trimmed the lead to 63-47 at halftime with a buzzer beater. No lead against a motivated Spurs team is large enough.
Third Quarter - Nerves, So Many Nerves
I made the mistake of voicing it aloud to my wife. "If we can build this into 25 or more maybe Popovich will waive the white flag." Of course that is not happening. The lead is now 12. I like that the Pelicans decided to make Tony Parker beat them again by making mid range floaters. It is better than letting the ball move and the 3-point shots rain down. Possibly a slower, more excruciating way to die. By a million small cuts. Parker responded with a brilliant game, shooting 11-17 from the field including 8-12 outside the restricted area.
The Spurs could not miss. They shot 57% for the game including an absolutely ridiculous 64.9% (24-37) on contested shots. In the third they shot 66% as a team. 66%! Who does that? How is that even possible? The Pelicans could not match their shot making. Still, they attacked the basket relentlessly. At one point the lead was as small as 10 points with seven minutes remaining. Five of the next six shots for the Pelicans came at the rim, only an open Anthony Davis jumper rattled out.
An Eric Gordon three answered Patty Mills to extend the lead to 82-65. Manu Ginobli answered right back with a step-back, challenged three of his own. Norris Cole missed a layup on the next trip. Missing layups, sadly, became a theme as the game wore on for the Pelicans. Mills hit this shot as time expired.
New fundamentals https://t.co/sAuLdaE532— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) April 16, 2015
Seriously? It is a great shot, but it was one of many, MANY tough shots the Spurs hit tonight over some semblance of solid to excellent defense by the Pelicans. I was terrified. Twitter kept reading "Spurs gonna Spur". This is how it ends? With a fourth quarter collapse?
Fourth Quarter - Anthony Davis Answers
No. This season would not end tonight. Anthony Davis took over. The Pelicans ran a bunch of offense for Tyreke Evans as he was being guarded by Marco Belinelli. Sadly two consecutive layups failed to find pay dirt. The lead shrunk. Tim Duncan checked in. Omer Asik jumped off the bench to join him on the floor. The lead was down to seven, then to five. Eight minutes were on the clock and Gregg Popovich decided to take the air out of the building.
Hack-an-Asik had begun.
This ploy is just as much about the fans in the building as it is Asik's ability at the foul line. Also, we have to remember that the Spurs are an old team. Standing at the foul line might not be lounging on the bench, but it is closer than playing actual defense. The crowd was notably upset on the telecast, then less engaged. Still, three possessions of sending Omer to the foul line led to three points, and the Pelican lead actually grew before Monty Williams pulled Asik for Ryan Anderson.
The Finishing Five was on the floor. In crunch time. Against a battle tested opponent. In a matter of a minute and a half they scored on four of five possessions, tallying nine points while building upon the lead. Eric Gordon buried a three from the top of the arc and the lead was again double digits. Before intentional fouls began over the course of some six minutes the Finishing Five did just what we hoped they would do. They finished.
In the last minute Anthony Davis had had enough. Kawhi Leonard wants to try a step back jumper? Poor decision.
Boris Diaw taking him off the dribble? See the first clip. A terrible homerun pass attempt by Eric Gordon momentarily put the game in doubt, but Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis knocked down clutch free throws to send the Pelicans to the playoffs.
There is so much more to this game. Nearly every Pelican who saw the floor contributed in a positive and meaningful way. For now, breathe out. Celebrate. Enjoy the pile of house money the Pelicans get to play with in the playoffs.