Nineteen games have passed since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon during the New Orleans Pelicans game against the Houston Rockets.
At the time, Cousins was the second leg of an All-Star frontcourt combo with Anthony Davis, playing the best basketball of his career and appeared poised to send the Pelicans to their first playoff appearance in three years.
Immediately following the injury, New Orleans lost five of their next six games. In a crowded Western Conference playoff race, doubt was beginning to set in down in the Big Easy about whether the Pelicans could cope with the loss of Cousins.
Then, fitting in with the always unpredictable and chaotic nature of the NBA, Anthony Davis skyrocketed into other-worldly levels of production, and New Orleans followed suit. Before Friday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, the Pelicans won 10 straight games while Davis averaged 35.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, and 2.8 steals per game. Over the course of those 10 contests, Davis topped 40 points three times, and 50 points once.
Every question that was thrown Davis’ way following Cousins’ injury about whether he could shoulder the load of a Pelicans’ playoff run seemed to be answered.
The Western Conference is no joke. Currently, the playoff race is so tight that the 4th-seeded Pelicans are only two and a half games out of ninth place. While Davis has clearly been unstoppable, in order for the Pelicans to maintain their relevance in the playoff picture, he’s going to need some sort of help.
Luckily for him and his team, he’s gotten just that.
During New Orleans’ win streak, Jrue Holiday emerged as the team’s second option, looking more lethal than the Pelicans could’ve ever hoped when they signed him to an extension last summer. Holiday’s averages of 24.9 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.6 rebounds — all while shooting a blistering 43 percent from beyond the arc — positioned the eighth year point guard as Davis’ second fiddle.
This heightened production is the result of head coach Alvin Gentry’s offense finally coming to fruition in its most effective form. Gentry loves to play “pace and space” basketball, and the Pelicans’ No. 11 and No. 9 ranking in pace the last two seasons reflect that. While Cousins is fantastic in his own right, and a cross between the old-school big man and today’s new hybrid big, his insertion in New Orleans’ lineup slowed things down just a bit. Before the injury, the Pelicans were still pushing the fifth fastest pace in the league, but after losing Cousins the team is now pushing the ball faster than any club in the Association. As a result, Davis’ freakish athletic advantages are proving to be overwhelming for opponents.
With 17 games left on the schedule, the Pelicans only have five opponents remaining who are either already in the playoff picture or just outside of it. Matchups against Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Portland (among others) remain. Continuing the excellence Davis and his teammates are producing is the only conceivable way to imagine the Pelicans hosting a playoff series — or even staying in the playoff landscape for that matter.
The enhanced level of play from Davis and Holiday make the Pelicans a threat to compete every night, assuming the production continues as it did over the course of the team’s winning streak. But the injected play of the team’s supporting cast since Cousins went down is not to be overlooked while surveying New Orleans’ recent success.
Since Nikola Mirotic arrived from Chicago he’s added a scoring and rebounding punch outside of Davis that the Pelicans desperately needed. In the wake of Cousins, he’s finding success inside Gentry’s running system that allows him to shoot over seven three-point attempts a game.
All of the running and scoring the Pelicans have become accustomed to over the last month needs to be orchestrated by someone on the court, otherwise, it can turn into a hot mess quickly. By using Rajon Rondo on the court at the same time as Holiday, Rondo becomes responsible for quarterbacking an offense that needs precision accuracy and execution. At the same time, it allows Holiday to move and rotate without the ball, putting him in a more natural situation to score rather than set up an offense.
Is losing an All-Star player ever ideal for a team’s hopes at making the playoffs? Absolutely not. But when Cousins went down for the Pelicans, followed by their first week of basketball without him, the team quickly looked to be on the outside looking in of the playoff race.
Instead, with just about a month left on the regular season schedule, Davis and Co. are playing well above expectations and are in position to host a playoff series for the first time since 2008 when Chris Paul was running around in a teal jersey.
Davis is an MVP candidate, the New Orleans Pelicans are a playoff team, and Cousins in wearing a walking boot on the sidelines. The NBA is a wild ride of unpredictability.
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