The chatter’s been thrumming in NBA circles for more than a year: even though Anthony Davis is under contract through the end of the 2020-21 season, if things go south in the Big Easy and he gets a crack at it, noted asset-hoarder and trade-partner-fleecing enthusiast Danny Ainge would be mighty interested in trying to bring the All-NBA forward to the Boston Celtics. The speculation about the future grew so loud this summer that the Pelicans star started fielding questions about it from kids at his basketball camp, and that he reportedly felt compelled to walk into the office of general manager Dell Demps and ask him what was up.
You’ll be shocked to learn that Demps, who has yet to build a winner around Davis since landing him with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft but who remains very committed to the project of doing so, told the soon-to-be five-time All-Star that nothing was shaking on the trade front. That hasn’t kept Celtics fans from dreaming about making Davis the latest addition to the constellation Ainge is assembling, of course:
Trade deadline is around the corner… pic.twitter.com/lUEAjKVpjj
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 16, 2018
But while Davis wasn’t interested in discussing the topic on Tuesday morning, come the evening, he reminded everybody just why the Celtics might be willing to move heaven and earth to get him.
Davis dominated the Celtics’ No. 1-ranked defense inside and out on Tuesday. Despite drawing the attention of All-Defensive candidate Al Horford and tough reserves Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, Davis still managed to make Boston’s bigs look totally overmatched as they tried to body him on the block, contest him on the perimeter, keep him off the boards or track him in transition.
To be fair, he had plenty of help at TD Garden. Fellow All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins bulled his way to the basket and cleaned the defensive glass. Ian Clark had some big buckets (and a late-fourth-quarter jump ball win!) off the bench. Jrue Holiday had the kind of game that reminds you why he once made an All-Star team, putting in yeoman’s defensive work while also pouring in points and dropping dimes.
But while their contributions helped snap the Celtics’ seven-game winning streak, it was Davis who put Boston on the brink with yet another monster game: 45 points on 16-for-34 shooting, 16 rebounds (including eight on the offensive glass), two assists, two blocks, one steal and just one turnover in 44 1/2 minutes to push the Pelicans to an impressive 116-113 win over the Eastern Conference’s top seed. He teamed with Cousins (19 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, three steals) to stake New Orleans to a 50-30 edge in points in the paint, and limiting the C’s to just 39.6 percent shooting as a team.
After Davis came storming out of the gate with 25 first-half points, the Celtics made a more concerted effort to key on him in the fourth quarter, helping limit him to just four points in the frame, all on free throws. But Boston being so intent on trying to keep Davis away from the rim and off the board late helped create space for top ballhandler Holiday to find room to make his presence felt. He did so by scoring the final four points of OT, capping a very strong night that saw him chip in 23 points, seven assists, four rebounds, three steals and a block.
“They kept worrying about me so much diving to the rim, Jrue was able to hit them little midrange jumpers,” Davis said after the game, according to The Associated Press. “He kind of took over that overtime for us and got some separation for us.”
Holiday brought the Pelicans home late in overtime, but it’s Davis who’s been carrying the club of late, acting as a frighteningly efficient source of offense while also hoovering the boards:
Anthony Davis' shot chart over his past 4 games played.
40 PPG on 60% FG%
1.57 points per shot pic.twitter.com/1WwYFKsAjl
— Mason Ginsberg (@MasonGinsberg) January 17, 2018
Anthony Davis' last 4 games:
30/10 in 26 mins (W vs. DET)
36/9 w/ 2 blks (W vs. POR)
48/17 w/ 4 stls, 3 blks (W @ NYK)
45/16 w/ 2 blks (W @ BOS)
— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) January 17, 2018
After incinerating the New York Knicks on Sunday, Davis’ big night in Boston slots him in alongside James Harden as the only players in the league this season to put up back-to-back 40-point games. More than that, though, Davis now has back-to-back 45-point, 15-rebound games — the sort of two-game stretch that only Hall of Famers have had in the past — and has six such outings for his career, trailing only Shaquille O’Neal for the highest number of any player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
For the season, Davis is now averaging 27.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals in 36 minutes per game — obscene numbers, but ones that are actually down a tick from last year, owing in part to ceding some of his shots and rebounding opportunities to Cousins as they’ve embarked (quite successfully) on their first full season together in New Orleans. But while AD’s taking a few fewer shots per game, he’s canning them at much higher rates, posting career-high shooting percentages from the field (56.1 percent, seventh-best in the league despite taking nearly 18 shots a night), from the 3-point arc (34.7 percent, just south of league-average) and the foul line (82.1 percent, while also producing his highest free-throw rate as a pro).
Among players who use at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions when they’re on the court, only Stephen Curry and Clint Capela are posting a higher True Shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) than Davis. On top of that, he’s also one of the league’s top interior deterrents, ranking just outside the top 10 in defensive field goal percentage allowed when guarding the rim. The Pelicans have performed nearly 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off it this season, a number roughly in line with two-time Most Valuable Player Curry and just south of MVP-consideration types like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler.
With the exception of Antetokounmpo, whose Milwaukee Bucks have struggled to maintain consistency and sit in the No. 7 spot in the East, the common thread among those players and others included in MVP talk midway through the season — Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving — is that their teams are winning, putting themselves in line for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Pelicans find themselves in a similar spot to Giannis’ Bucks, sitting at 23-20, in sixth place in the West and closer to ninth-place Portland than fourth-place Minnesota in the standings.
It’s going to take a significant roll for New Orleans to make enough noise to not only nudge past the still-scuffling Oklahoma City Thunder into fifth place, but get within hailing distance of the likes of the Wolves and Spurs in the upper tier of the Western chase. If the Pelicans can get on that kind of run, though, it’ll likely be because a defense that started the year off in dire straits has maintained or improved upon the form that’s seen it rank 15th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession over the last 15 games, and because Davis and Cousins have been able to stay healthy and dominant enough to carry an otherwise largely underwhelming roster. If that happens, and if Davis keeps putting up numbers like this, he could absolutely return to the level of MVP discussion in which he found himself after the 2014-15 season, when he finished fifth in voting after leading the Pelicans to the playoffs.
New Orleans’ construction doesn’t leave much margin for error, but stars like Davis — who can create and finish, slash and shoot, defend at the rim and in space, lock down the glass, put a thumb on the scale and do it all in the flow of the game — can still change everything, even against teams as deep and excellent as Boston. That’s why, even with the Pelicans on the right side of .500 and looking like postseason contenders, fans of the Celtics (and, why not, Warriors) will continue to imagine what he’d look like in a new uniform … and why the Pelicans will continue to do whatever they can not to let him out of their sight.
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