In his home playoff debut, Anthony Davis had 36 minutes of everything going his way.
The buzzer on the third quarter sounded, with the New Orleans Pelicans holding a 20-point lead over the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, and the fans at the Smoothie King Center were raucous.
All it would have taken to make this a series was 12 more minutes against a team who had never, in over 350 games in franchise history, overcome a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
That’s the funny thing about sports in the playoffs: No lead ever feels safe until the clock shows all zeroes. Going against a veteran team like the Warriors makes a seemingly secure advantage all that more precarious.
Nothing seems impossible with leaders and playmakers, especially those of the caliber of point guard Steph Curry.
Leading by three, Davis tried to use his athletic gifts to deflect the trey from the corner Curry had fired on a second-chance.
However, he only succeeded in forcing Curry out of bonds after the shot, which somehow found nothing but net. This forced game three into overtime, and the Warriors won 123-119, taking a stranglehold on the series.
Failure is always a bitter pill to swallow, especially for someone like Davis, who has seen success come so easily. He dominated amateur ball and led the University of Kentucky to a national title in his lone year of collegiate play. He is remarkably athletic for his size, and though lean, he's very strong.
The Pelicans made him the top pick in the 2012 draft, and he has become the franchise’s cornerstone, leading them to the postseason this year for the first time since 2011 (when they still carried the Hornets nickname and were led by Chris Paul).
This has been a breakthrough year for Davis. His efforts to push his team to the final playoff spot over veteran-laden Oklahoma City Thunder has earned him significant consideration for MVP honors. Should he win, he will match Derrick Rose as the youngest player to win the regular season award.
However, in the playoffs, where the margin for error evaporates and mistakes get magnified, he will receive something, perhaps, more valuable: advanced lessons in playing basketball on the big stage.
Never let up
The Warriors dominated the fourth quarter to erase the deficit and push momentum. As my broadcast partner at Penn, JJ Anthony, often noted during games, “Basketball is a game of runs,” and playoff basketball hinges on those runs.
The Warriors took control with their offense and established an edge on the offensive glass. They pulled down 10 offensive boards in the final 12 minutes, an astounding number considering Davis’ rebounding prowess.
That commitment led to 18 second-chance points converted by the Warriors, capped by the improbable three that silenced the Pelicans crowd.
Great teams do find ways to win games, as the Warriors did last night. However, great players often find ways to affect the outcome that will bring their team to victory.
In the fourth quarter, Davis only had three rebounds and two defensives, missed three of his four field goal attempts and got called for an offensive goaltending that negated a Pelicans’ basket.
When fouled in the final 10 seconds, he could only convert one of two free throws, when both would’ve made the lead four. Taking the foot off the pedal led to a Warriors comeback that saw a 15-point lead overcome in the final 5:33.
It’s not an easy thing to ask a young superstar to rally a team in a crisis situation. When phenoms stayed in school, it facilitated them into leadership roles. It was like how Magic Johnson took over for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the first NBA Crown for the LA Lakers.
Davis spent most of his NBA career on bad teams, but he helped bring the Pelicans to this point. He should be one of the vocal guys in the huddle, with directional expertise or words of encouragement.
The Pelicans had a chance to close out the game with a quick foul off the Warriors’ inbound, leading by three with five seconds remaining. Coach Monty Williams called for someone to foul before the three was attempted.
Davis had his chance when he lost the rebound battle to Marreese Speights after Curry’s first shot went begging.
That would’ve prompted an intentional miss on the second foul shot, and Davis’ tremendous reach and quick reaction would’ve likely corralled the rebound and forced the Warriors to foul.
Taking ownership of the moment could have helped Davis see that sequence before it happened, and we could be talking about the decision that preserved a hard-earned victory.
Learn from failure
I didn’t come today to bury Davis. He’s a phenomenal athlete and an excellent steward of the game, and he will be a leading man in the game for years to come. However, he also captains a team with no one over 28, and he is the youngest player by about three years.
I cannot fathom the responsibility he carries every time he steps on the court and represents his franchise. However, from working in sports and being an athlete myself, I can offer three words I’m sure he’s heard since he dejectedly left the floor last night: Learn from this.
Failure is the biggest opponent in life, but it can also be the greatest teacher. His remarkable success during his first 22 years on earth may not have acquainted him well with this concept, but he must learn these lessons.
The hardest transition from one level to another, especially from college to professional basketball, is the speed of play. Experience helps the game slow down, which is why so many superstars initially struggle.
Davis seems to have the pace mastered in his third year, as he has propelled his team to this postseason.
Now comes the tough part: unpredictability. Davis must learn how to force his team to adapt and counter their tendencies.
The Pelicans weren’t expected to get by the top-seeded Warriors in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and this playoff experience will help the young Pelicans build and prepare for the future.
Game four becomes a last-ditch effort that will surely reveal the team’s fortitude and character.
Now, history falls firmly on the side of the Warriors: No NBA team has ever erased a 3-0 series deficit to win a seven-game series.