Anthony Davis and the Pelicans surged to a 13-point third quarter lead, then withered against a rare Cavs defensive onslaught. Cleveland topped New Orleans Friday, 107-102.
Several key takeaways below — including the key observation for Celtics fans that the #CavsCrackup is on partial pause — and potential cancellation.
This is not just based on LeBron James, though he’s always a factor. The biggest switch, at least against New Orleans, was the revived play of J.R. Smith, Larry Nance Jr., and even Tristan Thompson. Not to mention Kevin Love — healthy, again, at least for now.
Davis doubts, Pelicans mojo
We’re not talking about our doubts — Davis remains the most valuable player in the NBA. But watching the Pelicans wither in the fourth quarter, Davis seemed to be settling for floaters, mid-range jumpers for most of the second half.
Yes, the Cavs were playing defense — more about that below. And yes, Davis has been making those shots all year (just ask Boston fans). Still, the Unibrow finished with 16 points on 19 shots, and a -20 plus-minus on the floor. Where is Playing-Against-the-Celtics Davis when you need him?
Long term, it may well be that like (say) LeBron James, Davis needs a pairing with a complementary star (or, ahem, a great coach) who’s got that championship mettle.
Graphically, it looks like this: The Warriors <---> Steve Kerr. LeBron —> Dwayne Wade. Shaquille O’Neal <--- Kobe Bryant. Paul Pierce <---> Kevin Garnett. Tim Duncan <---> Craig Popovich. And no, Boogie Cousins is not that complementary guy.
Celtics fans will be forgiven for hoping it’s AD —> Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving. Pelicans fans need not apologize for dreaming about Kyrie —> New Orleans. In the end, our best guess is that Davis languishes with the Pelicans into the 2020s as the franchise tinkers and dawdles and wastes a generational talent (cc: Milwaukee Bucks). But the rest of the NBA can hope.
Cavs defense – LeBron King-ly in clutch
Click-bait headline writers were all over the dog-bites-man fact that LeBron scored in double digits for the 987th straight time (regular season) — breaking Michael Jordan‘s record. But a far more important trend continued for the Cavs — and a new one may have emerged.
For years, one of the knocks on LeBron was his occasional late-game disappearing act. Not talking about 4th-quarter counting stats — but key turnovers, and a hesitation to attack the basket, in clutch-squared time. And for years, there was much truth to the knock, especially when it comes to free-throw shooting, and late-game free-throw avoidance.
Friday night, and all this season by the way, at least from the floor — not so. LeBron scored 8 consecutive points at one point in the final five minutes. He thus remains one of the NBA’s top marksmen in clutch- (55 percent effective-field goal rate) and clutch-squared (63 percent) situations. (Davis is another, by the way.)
More worrisome still for fans outside of Cleveland, Ohio was the way James led a spirited Cavs defensive effort in the second half. With the Cavs trailing by 3 in the third quarter, we tweeted with dismay, “Cavs playing actual defense.”
Nance (3 steals) and Thompson (14 rebounds) — with James often hovering near the lane to threaten help — somehow kept Davis out of the paint for most of the night. Jordan Clarkson (23 points) was “Lakers Clarkson” again. And Kevin Love — well, Love was on the floor. He had an off-shooting night, scoring 8 points and going 0-6 from 3-point range.
(It was funny, for Celtics fans, to listen to the Cavs announcers complaining about injuries.)
Everyone has injuries throughout the NBA season — just ask Celtics, Warriors, 76ers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Bucks, or Heat fans. But time Cavs have at least a chance to enter the playoffs with their two key all-stars healthy. Which is more than any fans outside of Canada can say as of March 31.
In short, there are signs of a CavsCrackup pause — even a full reversal. At least on Friday.