In his first four games of the 2016-17 NBA season, Anthony Davis has averaged 37 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.0 steals, 3.0 blocks and 2.5 assists in 37.5 minutes per contest for the New Orleans Pelicans. He has turned in historic outings, battled super-teams to the bitter end, and carried an offensive burden (as defined here by usage rate, at least) that’s only been topped thus far by Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan.
He has been every ounce the superhero we hoped for before the season … and it hasn’t been enough. The Pelicans enter Wednesday’s slate at 0-4 after a 117-113 home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, a game that saw six Bucks score in double figures, led by a monster effort from Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 10 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, one steal in 34 minutes).
As disheartening as it was to lose games in which Davis popped for 50 and 45 points, though, this one might have been even worse. See, against Milwaukee, the Pelicans actually did get offensive contributions from non-AD sources.
Point guard Tim Frazier, a Penn State product who’s far from a household name but who’s quietly done a nice job at the controls in the absence of lead ball-handlers Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, scored 20 points on 12 shots with nine assists. Free-agent signings Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore found the touch, combining for 35 points on 22 shots, including a 6-for-10 mark from 3-point range. First-round pick Buddy Hield even hit the first long ball of his career, albeit on his 14th try:
It all came to naught, though, because the Pelicans couldn’t keep a Bucks team that entered the Smoothie King Center ranked 25th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession from hanging 117 points, ripping off a 19-7 early fourth-quarter run to take control, and getting the game’s most important basket in the final two minutes. As a result, Davis now occupies the record books in pages on which you don’t want to appear:
Anthony Davis is averaging 37 PPG this season, by far the most through 4 games by a player whose team started 0-4: pic.twitter.com/FtaLdwkqrH
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 2, 2016
… and, as you might expect, he and the rest of the Pelicans are feeling pretty frustrated about it. From William Guillory of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Davis fought through his obvious frustration and gave a short, simple message.
“We had too many mental breakdowns,” Davis said. “We’re not talking out there and so, therefore, we have mental breakdowns that gave them easy layups at the basket and open shots.” […]
“I thought we played hard, but we’ve got to start playing a lot smarter,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “We just have too many defensive breakdowns…We’ve got a lot of work that we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get better defensively. It doesn’t matter, we can get 113 every night, but if we’re going to give up 117, mathematically, that doesn’t add up.”
We knew heading into the season that defense was going to be the key concern for a Pelicans club that has ranked 22nd or worse in defensive efficiency in each of the last four seasons:
The hope, though, was that the return of a healthy Davis, combined with a roster reorganization that allowed sharpshooting defensive minuses Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to walk in favor of spending on lower-wattage but more versatile defenders like Hill, Moore and ex-New York Knicks guard Langston Galloway, would help the Pelicans more credibly stall dribble penetration and stop perimeter threats from incinerating New Orleans’ coverages. And yet, multiple Pelicans suffered lapses in focus, effort and technique on Tuesday that opened the door for Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and others to get free, helping tilt the game in Milwaukee’s favor.
Oleh Kosel of The Bird Writes highlighted several involving reserves Alexis Ajinca and Dante Cunningham, but Davis and Hill — the former Indiana Pacers swingman to whom Pelicans general manager Dell Demps gave a four-year, $52 million contract this summer — also lost track of Antetokounmpo at a pair of particularly inopportune times: the last two minutes of a one-possession game.
First, Hill slides with Matthew Dellavedova in the two-man game on the left wing, completely leaving Antetokounmpo alone to roll to the basket, take a pocket pass and swoop in for a layup around a contesting Davis, who was a half-step late in rotating to protect the rim as he tracked Bucks center John Henson and who couldn’t quite reach out to bother the shot of the condor-armed “Greek Freak” as he knifed to the cup.
On the Bucks’ next trip, Hill again tries to team with Frazier to trap Dellavedova in the corner, and Davis again retreats into the paint to check Henson’s rim-roll, leaving Antetokounmpo totally alone above the arc on the left wing. To be fair, Giannis had missed his first five 3-point ties of the evening, and has mostly proven to be the kind of shooter you can sag off away from the paint. Still, it’s a bad look to leave him completely unmarked at the 3-point line with 90 seconds left in a one-score game, and Antetokounmpo made the Pelicans pay, stroking the triple to put Milwaukee up by five and send them on their way to the victory.
The Pelicans sit in the bottom-third of the NBA in field goals, 3-pointers and free throws allowed, opponent field goal percentage, fast-break points allowed and points in the paint allowed. And now, they’ll have to try to get off the schneid playing on the road on the second night of a back-to-back against a Memphis Grizzlies team that will boast a fully rested Mike Conley and Marc Gasol after holding them out of Tuesday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With Holiday remaining away from the team to care for his newborn baby and his wife, U.S. soccer star Lauren Holiday, following her surgery to remove a benign tumor on her brain, and wings Evans and Quincy Pondexter still working their way back from knee injuries, the cavalry’s not coming just yet. The Pelicans will have to address their problems with the tools they’ve got on hand right now, and what’s flummoxing Gentry is that he believes they should be able to do so, according to ESPN.com’s Justin Verrier:
“I’m frustrated, but I’ve got to find a solution,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I can’t be frustrated to the point of where I throw up my hands and not anything’s going on. It’s my job. That’s why they hired me here. I’ve got to find a solution to our problems. I’ve got to find a solution to why we’re turning the ball over. I’ve got to find a solution as to why we can’t go into the game with a defensive plan and stick to it. It’s very frustrating, yeah. But there have got to be solutions.” […]
We’re not talking, so we’re not switching where we’re supposed to [and we’re] leaving open 3-point shooters. We’re not talking on back screens, so we end up giving up a layup. These are all things that are very correctable and things that we go over every day that we just got to get better at. There’s no excuse for not talking defensively.”
Until they start, the way the Pelicans do talk might start to become cause for concern.
Here’s Davis before Tuesday’s game, according to Scott Kushner of The Advocate: “We just want to get a win. We want to get on a winning track. There’s no pressure or anything, we just want to get there.”
An afterward, according to Brett Martel of The Associated Press: “We can’t get a win. It’s frustrating. But whatever we need to do, we need to do it fast.”
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