Trying to beat the Trail Blazers in Portland is never an easy task, but it becomes especially difficult when the visiting team is asked to do it without their best player.
This was the predicament the New Orleans Pelicans found themselves in on Monday evening after Anthony Davis was forced to exit just 5:01 minutes into the contest. Initial reports blamed bumping knees with Maurice Harkless on the first play of the game, but later Jen Hale divulged that AD had originally tweaked his knee in pregame.
As @PelicansNBA AD gets MRI on L knee, getting word he tweaked knee during pre game warmups & was trying to make a go of it bf Harkless bump— Jennifer Hale (@JenHale504) October 25, 2017
Regardless of what was precisely responsible for sidelining Davis, the fact that Alvin Gentry announced AD’s MRI came back negative in postgame comments is the news that truly counts.
Despite the loss of an MVP-caliber player, the Pelicans were able to push the Trail Blazers to the limit after finding themselves down 29-19 after the first quarter. The main reason?
DeMarcus Cousins was incredible, posting a line of 39 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three 3s. He also had eight turnovers, but it’s foolish to nitpick the miscues considering he was never afforded normal rest once Davis left the game.
In the back of most minds, this was the biggest fear: what would the Pelicans do if one of Davis or Cousins misses time?
We got our answer Monday, and it wasn’t good.
With Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca sitting on the injury report, the burden fell upon Dante Cunningham and Cheick Diallo. They were unable to shoulder the load, at least on this night. Although I’m not the biggest fan of the rather noisy plus/minus statistic, there can be no downplaying a combined -32 in 41 minutes entirely — when Cousins alone was a +6 in 39 minutes!
Since the start of the season, Cunningham has been mired in a shooting slump. Today, he missed everything: open three-point attempts, a short jumper from about eight feet out and an important, point blank, tip-in dunk with two minutes remaining in a 94-93 game.
Meanwhile, Diallo showed why he was yet to see regular season game action until this point — Defense, or should I say a lack thereof. He picked up numerous silly fouls, was called for several 3-second calls and wasn’t able to corral defensive rebounds well in his area.
However, the Pelicans had much bigger issues than just the play of two of their forwards. Namely, the entire team had an issue with turnovers and rebounding. The Trail Blazers received a ridiculous number of extra chances, so despite Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum converting just 4 of their 20 shot attempts through the first three quarters, Portland trailed by a mere two points heading into the fourth.
Then, once C.J. inevitably caught fire from the outside, the Pelicans deficit ballooned to 11 with 6:20 left in the game. Yet, instead of rolling over, New Orleans nearly completed a valiant comeback attempt. Had Jameer Nelson made his lay-up or Cunningham followed up that miss with a putback dunk, the Pelicans would have been ahead 95-94 with 2:05 remaining. Instead, Portland expanded on their lead quickly by sealing the victory from the charity stripe.
But, hey, I’m not mad and neither should you be.
After losing Davis, after enduring a 33.3 FG% / 16.7 3P% / 7-turnover first quarter, after going down double digits in the fourth, the Pelicans never quit. They handled every obstacle, played solid defense throughout and gave themselves a chance for the win in the final minutes of the ball game. And, had Jrue Holiday been properly rewarded with several trips to the free throw line after getting hit or the Pelicans offense executed better on the last few possessions, New Orleans might have escaped Portland with an unimaginable victory.
Sigh, maybe next time.
Up next, the Pelicans travel to Sacramento to face the Kings on TNT Thursday at 9:30 PM central. The game marks the return of Cousins to Sacramento since the trade that brought him to New Orleans so expect lots of fireworks!