The New Orleans Pelicans entered Wednesday night with a simple mission: win on the final night of the regular season and you're in the 2015 NBA playoffs. But even the simple's pretty complicated in the Western Conference.
In this case, "win and you're in" meant taking down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who have been carving up the NBA over the past three months, entered Smoothie King Center having won 11 straight games, and had something to play for — a chance at the No. 2 seed in the Western bracket, which would mean home-court advantage in the first two rounds and a line to avoiding the league-leading Golden State Warriors until the Western Confeference Finals.
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Beating a team that good, that poised, with that kind of motivation is a pretty tough problem. Luckily for the New Orleans faithful, the Pelicans employ one hell of a problem solver.
With 39.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, the Pelicans were clinging to a seven-point lead after fending off a Spurs comeback. They needed one more stop to slam the door, one more play to punch their postseason ticket. So, naturally, they called on the man who has made play after play for them all season long — All-Star power forward Anthony Davis — and the ascendant star delivered.
Davis turned away Spurs big man Boris Diaw's attempt at a layup that would have made it a two-possession game. Not only that, but Davis swatted the ball off the backboard, kept it in play, and grabbed the rebound to secure possession, ensuring no scramble-drill second-chance opportunities for the Spurs, and sending the Smoothie King crowd into hysterics.
This, of course, came on the heels of Davis making a remarkably similar momentum-saving rejection on Spurs linchpin Kawhi Leonard a scant 15 seconds earlier:
... so it wasn't exactly stunning, though that didn't make it any less remarkable.
Davis' block didn't end the game, of course — again, nothing's simple out West — but it did turn the final half-minute of the game into a free-throw contest. Fittingly, it ended with Davis himself at the line after corralling a last-gasp 3-point try by Spurs reserve Patty Mills.
As he stepped to the stripe, the fans showered him with well-deserved "M-V-P!" chants; he calmly drained them both, putting a cap on the Pelicans' scoring in a 108-103 win that clinched New Orleans' first playoff berth since 2011, before Chris Paul was traded to Los Angeles, and puts Davis in the postseason for the first time in his beyond-exciting young career.
The Pelicans' reward for securing the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference? A trip to the Bay Area and a date with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the best team in the NBA.
"We 'bout to go get Golden State," Davis said with a laugh during a postgame interview with FOX Sports' Jen Hale. "Man, this was an unbelievable win, you know, for us to come out and play the way we played, play hard, against a tough Spurs team who was battling for something as well. You know, Coach just told us to come out with a lot of energy, and that's what we did in the first half. But basketball's a game of runs. They came out and made runs, and we knew that we had to sustain their run and make a run ourselves, and that's what we did. Everybody stepped up and played well tonight."
The Pelicans win eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder, who pushed ,a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nba-ball-dont-lie/nba-playoff-picture-update--pelicans--thunder-take-west-s-no--8-race-to-season-s-final-day-063128950.html">the race for the eighth seed to the very last day of the season despite losing reigning MVP Kevin Durant and top interior defender Serge Ibaka to injuries, and having to rely almost solely on All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook to carry them past the finish line.
Oklahoma City blew out the Minnesota Timberwolves, 138-113, behind another rampaging performance by Westbrook — 37 points on 11-for-20 shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals in 32 minutes, with nearly all of that damage done in a remarkable first half, to best former teammate James Harden for the first scoring title of his career — to finish the season at 45-37, the same record as the Pelicans.
New Orleans held the head-to-head tiebreaker, though, winning three of four meetings against OKC this season, with the third and tie-breaker-clinching victory coming courtesy of — who else? — Davis, with this insane double-clutch game-winning 3-point buzzer-beater back in February:
... which, as it turns out, was a pretty big shot.
Davis has made plenty of those for the Pelicans this season, and made more on Wednesday. The still-just-22-year-old star scored a game-high 31 points on 12-for-26 shooting to go with 13 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists, coming through with a monster performance in the biggest game of the season against a defending NBA champion in which he spent much of the night squaring off against the immortal Tim Duncan. Decent night.
Embracing the challenge of controlling their own destiny, the Pelicans came out of the gate enthusiastic — a little tight, but definitely eager, matching the Spurs blow for blow and ripping off a 16-3 run over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the first quarter to take control of the contest. They pushed their lead as high as 23 in the second quarter, but saw their advantage whittled down to four points, 86-82, with 7:38 left in the fourth as San Antonio determinedly walked them down, with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich even resorting to intentionally fouling Pelicans center Omer Asik, a 59 percent free-throw shooter, to try to get back into the game.
"We just stayed together," Davis said when asked how the Pelicans withstood the Spurs' surge. "We've been in tough situations all year. We've played tough games all year. We knew what we had to do. We knew they were going to make a run; they've been in this position plenty of times. Five championships between some of those players. So we just had to make sure that we stayed focused, stayed locked in, mentally strong. Before we started, we said we had to have mental toughness. We knew that they wasn't going to go away."
No, it would be up to the Pelicans to put them away, which they did by stringing together some defensive stops and getting layups from guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon to push the lead back to nine. Every time the Spurs made a push, New Orleans responded, keeping the champs at bay until the long arms of the league's MVP-in-waiting could finish the job.
In the process, Davis and company returned Monty Williams to the playoffs, lightening the load on the embattled head coach for whom Davis expresses such significant support.
"I love him, man. I love him," Davis said. "He's done a lot for this team. He takes a lot of criticism, and he deals with it. He envisioned that we were going to make the playoffs. He told us like three weeks ago, when we were three games out and everybody counted us out. He said, 'I've been around too long. Anything can happen.' We came here tonight and got it done against a tough Spurs team — a great coach, great players, Hall of Famers. We had to put everything out on the line. We weren't banking on OKC losing or anything like that. We said, 'We've got to go take this game,' and we did that tonight."
Davis took care to emphasize the "we," crediting hits mates not only for their contributions on Wednesday — the 19 points, 11 assists and three steals from Evans; the 14 points and two big 3-pointers from Gordon; the 11 points, four assists and tough defense from recently returned point guard Jrue Holiday — but for what they've done for him throughout the season.
"All these guys helped me through everything. When I was down, and now when I'm up, they're right here by my side," Davis said. "You can see Norris [Cole] calling my name. That's what it's all about — having fun, sharing it with your teammates. I just love these guys. We worked our tails off all year, the past three years I've been here, and it's finally paid off.
"I don't know if people know — I dislocated my pinkie finger. And [Tyreke] told me, 'You wanna go home or you wanna be here?' I want to be here. And he said, 'All right, then go tape it up and let's play. Let's go. We not stoppin' at no stores. Straight gas. That's what we do, just keep going.'"
The Pelicans will keep going, rolling all the way to Oakland, to take on the very dangerous basketball team that lives there. We'll find out soon enough just how much New Orleans has left in the tank once they get there, but one thing's for sure: when the Pelicans arrive, they'll be bringing one hell of a difference-maker with them.
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