NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Now that five-time All-Star Anthony Davis has his first taste of a playoff triumph, he sounds eager to see what’s next.
Davis’ Pelicans looked like anything but a shoo-in for the postseason after fellow All-Star DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season in late January with an Achilles tear. They needed 81 games just to clinch a playoff spot. They ran the table during a pressure-packed final five games of the regular season, climbing to sixth in the Western Conference.
Four games later, New Orleans is on a nine-game winning streak and moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in 16 seasons since the NBA returned to the city in 2002.
“A lot of people counted us out after the injury to DeMarcus, so this is amazing,” Davis said following Saturday’s series-clinching, 131-123 victory over third-seeded Portland. “But we have to get ready for the second round.”
The Pelicans appear destined to play second-seeded Golden State in Round 2. The Warriors entered Sunday with a chance to sweep their first-round series against San Antonio.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry figures that facing the defending champs will be no easy task, even if Stephen Curry struggles to come back from his knee injury.
“If it is Golden State, we’re playing the NBA champs and we understand that,” said Gentry, adding that he’s a little amused by hearing his former boss, Steve Kerr, talk about the “turmoil” the Warriors endured this season. “I don’t think it’s turmoil if you win (58) games.”
The Pelicans would not be the favorites against Golden State. But given how they’ve played lately, another upset bid isn’t entirely out of the question — particularly with Curry’s injury casting doubt on when he’ll return and how effective he’ll be.
New Orleans’ current winning streak included a victory at Golden State. In their first-round series against Portland, the Pelicans proved they could get considerable scoring from players other than Davis when they needed it.
After Davis led the Pelicans with 35 points in Game 1, Holiday scored a team-high 33 in Game 2. When the series shifted to New Orleans for Game 3, forward Nikola Mirotic had a team-high 30 points.
Then in Game 4, a determined Davis and Holiday combined for 88 points, with Davis scoring a franchise playoff-record 47 and Holiday capping his 41-point outing with a clutch 3 and 18-foot jumper in the final minutes.
“Hats off to New Orleans. They played really well,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Their stars put on a show. … They had different people step up at different times.”
Having a veteran guard like Rajon Rondo to run the offense helped.
Pushing the pace, Rondo racked up 53 assists in four games and mixed in his share of slashing layups when defenses over-committed to Davis or Holiday.
“I came here to win a championship. I didn’t come here to beat a team in the first round or the second round,” said the 32-year-old Rondo, who won a title with Boston in 2008. “My expectations were high coming in, knowing the talent I was playing with.
“We were able to come together as a team that plays for one another. We believe in each other,” Rondo continued. “This is just one check mark of the bigger goal that we have in mind. We are going to try to get a couple of days of rest and come back locked in and ready to go.”
When the final horn sounded on the Blazers’ season, Portland star guard Damian Lillard exchanged a long hug with Davis. Afterward, Lillard discussed his appreciation for the Pelicans star, who needed six seasons to experience his first playoff victory with New Orleans, and who didn’t even get to participate in the playoffs in four of his first five years in the NBA.
“He’s had it hard. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like going all those years not being able to compete in the postseason when you’re that level of player,” Lillard said. “I congratulate him. … You’ve got to give credit where it’s due. I give him credit for his performance and their team. And he’s also a great dude. So, you can’t be mad at him.”
Perhaps even the Pelicans next-round opponents will be happy for Davis. But one can bet they won’t be all that happy to have to play against him.