Sure, Eric Gordon posters were available for the first few thousand fans, but it was Davis people have been increasingly wanting to see. Thus far this season, the centerpiece of team USA 2014 has taken the leap hoopheads had been waiting for, quietly improving his efficiency across the board to the point where only a trigger happy Kobe could outscore him (and no one could match his impact on the defensive end). Davis has been a Top 10 fixture in points, rebounds, blocks and steals so far this year; good luck finding historical comps. So for the non-degenerate League Pass-ers, Sports Illustrated finally decided to put the Brow on its cover, showcasing the next big thing to a larger audience not quite paying attention. This was his first home game after that introduction.
Then Tuesday afternoon came along.
Murmurs of Kevin Durant’s return came much earlier, and news spreads quickly in Oklahoma. “Aunt T says Durant’s coming back on Tuesday,” my OKC-native girlfriend mentioned—on Saturday. The local papers had been tracking both Durant and Russell Westbrook’s progress closer than state election campaigns. “Let’s get tickets now.”
Pelicans’ seats aren’t a hot commodity like their counterparts across the street in the Superdome, and as little as $30 on Stubhub (still cheaper than the NBA’s recent 50 percent off Cyber Monday deal) could get you in the lower bowl. A few hours before tip-off that number was about $10 higher, not the normal pricing pattern for a midweek regular season affair in New Orleans. Apparently scalpers didn’t tell the fans however. The Pelicans are a bottom-5 attendance team in the league, but the reported 13,000 or so was a low, low night.
Even still, the place felt fuller than other recently attended games. Certainly there was a noticeable uptick in opponents’ gear at the Smoothie King Center. And with virtually no pre-game fanfare for the moment, “Number 35, Kevin Durant” garnered applause that passed any non-Davis Pelicans’ starter. “I’m happy he’s back,” a nearby dad with two fellow Pelicans’ fans admitted. “But he could have waited a day.”
It’s fitting Durant came back against New Orleans as the Pellies are a trendy name to pencil in if the Thunder were to falter. But despite the Davis onslaught, the team has been decidedly average—merely 7-8 coming into the night, more than three games clear of the Top 8. New Orleans made a concerted marketing effort to get people invested early this season, but the team has been inconsistent. Tuesday was an opportunity: Fans needed to know the Davis excitement could include wins not just stats, and holding off a full-strength OKC (albeit barely full strength) might mute the sinking feeling that this team’s fate is to be part of the NBA’s dreaded middle class.
Davis would later say he thought Durant was understandably timid. (Take it from a young phenom who was absent for stretches at the end of last season, no one wants to re-aggrivate an injury.) Accordingly, Durant’s opening sequences were rough. He missed his first shot, shied away from Luke Babbitt contact on a drive while taking his second and then inexplicably missed the front end of his free throws. His first post-up (a rarity for the evening) came against Babbitt, and when Asik brought the expected double Durant uncharacteristically looked flustered. He tossed the ball away while leaping back, leading to a quick Pellies’ bucket in transition. In all, the reigning MVP and most efficient scorer on Earth only played about seven minutes in the quarter, and much of it was spent floating around the arc while loosely shadowing an overwhelmed Babbitt on defense. The Thunder did not look like the world beaters that jersey has indicated in recent years.
But there were flashes, even early on. Durant’s range was there—he finished 3-8 from three—and he wasn’t hesitant to take jumpers. In fact, his first made three of the night came off a vintage Durant sequence. The Pellies’ ran Davis off a screen that forced Durant to switch on to the big man, but KD was able to sag just enough to prevent a drive-by. He kept a hand in Davis’ face and forced a missed contested jumper, and the subsequent leak out led to the most lethal thing in the NBA: Kevin Durant. In Transition. Open. For a corner three. Later when Davis first switched onto Durant for a possession, he was even able to shake the big man and get to the rim for free throws.
Throughout the game, Anthony Davis did Anthony Davis things. He scored from all over the court (21 in the first half on everything from putbacks to drives, midrange jumpers to transition points at the rim), and along with Omer Asik he ratcheted up the team defense to terrifying heights. The Thunder lives at the line, spearheaded by bullish Westbrook drives that seemingly no one can eliminate. He did have a few vintage freak of nature bursts to the basket, but Asik and Davis effectively limited a main point of attack for OKC. Westbrook was 6-20, with a number of missed layups on top of errant short pull-up jumpers. His return from injury was overshadowed but more apparent in the end, not only due to the hand bandage.
After his initial encounter with Durant, Davis often found himself switching onto the Thunder’s savior. There were sequences where he’d check the entire OKC big three—starting with Serge Ibaka, onto Durant through a screen, ending up on Westbrook after a scramble—as the Pellies came away with a stop. Davis’s length and quickness, combined with Durant coming off the foot injury, seemed to keep Durant a jump shooter for much of the night. Scott Brooks has never been known as a master schemer, but Durant wasn’t running through much off-ball action and his aggression towards the rim felt below average.
In one particularly good sequence right before half, Davis closed on Durant after Ryan Anderson switched onto Ibaka. He forced Durant into a contested jumper, then found himself checked by KD on the other end. Davis simply flew straight to the rim, sidestepping the MVP as Durant tried to draw the charge. You couldn’t hear the ref whistle for a block as the place erupted, Davis beyond the basket flexing to an adoring crowd. Despite a few initial flurries of the old Thunder, this team was pushing the Western Conference elite around. They were up 17 at half.
The night was supposed to be the clash of the titans, but neither Davis nor Durant decided this game. The Thunder cut the lead down to 8 off the strength of Reggie Jackson and its bench unit in the third and early fourth, but they could never get it to two possessions, let alone one. The issue wasn’t the offense of Durant or the team. Despite Westbrook’s struggles, the Thunder broke the century mark. And Durant was mostly himself despite the limitations, finishing 9 of 18 from the floor for 27.
But Durant didn’t earn MVP honors for offense alone. Last season he clearly developed into a more rounded player. 2013 Durant put up Davis-like stat lines before Davis could, finding assists, blocks, and steals within the flow of a game and making a concerted effort to mix it up in the paint for rebounds and easy buckets. That aspect of his game hasn’t returned yet, and it could take Durant awhile to feel up for the strength and hustle parts NBA day-to-day. The Smoothie King Center has a monitor that constantly displays “hustle stats”—second chance points, steals/blocks, offensive rebounds, points in the paint, transition points, turnovers—and OKC lost every single category.
The Pelicans broke 110 against what’s normally one of the league’s stingiest Ds. And when things got tight late in the game, they pierced the Thunder’s armor in one specific area: “Take ’em Tyreke.” It was a chorus repeated again and again by nearby Pelicans fans, as the Thunder’s rotating cast of 3-and-D hopefuls (Anthony Roberson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb) couldn’t check relentless Evans’ drives. At one point late in the game, the supposedly one-note Evans got to the rim enough to score his team’s next 15 points. For all the Thunder’s potential when Westbrook and Durant perform at full-strength, an unstoppable swing man remains a glaring weakness since the trade that shall not be referenced. Call it the Thabo Sefolosha syndrome.
It’s just a regular season game, and both the Pelicans and Thunder have a long way to go before any conclusions. But for one night roles temporarily reversed, and New Orleans looked like a playoff squad while OKC played the role of mid-tier NBA squad. And if, perhaps only if, you believe that snapshot gut reaction, the MVP chants with 55 seconds left made perfect sense. Anthony Davis made both of the free throws.