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Anthony Davis-led Pelicans thrash Rockets in opener

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HOUSTON (AP) — Anthony Davis couldn’t help but notice James Harden‘s freshly minted MVP trophy sitting at midcourt before a ceremony during warmups on Wednesday night.

After Harden hoisted the trophy for the first time before the Toyota Center home crowd and received a few MVP chants throughout the night, Davis began to make an MVP case of his own.

Davis had 32 points, 16 rebounds and a career-high eight assists while Nikola Mirotic scored 30 points to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 131-112 win over the Houston Rockets in their season opener.

“When it was sitting there before the game, I glanced at it, and then I had to lock back in for the game,” Davis said. “That stuff will take care of itself. As long as we keep doing what we’re doing as a team, the rest will come on its own.”

Davis added three blocks and three steals, while Mirotic shot a sizzling 6 of 8 from 3-point range, and Julius Randle had 25 points off the bench.

“We moved the basketball and we made shots, but we put our hats on and defended,” Davis said. “To come out with a win against a team like that after the season they had and coming off the season we had, we wanted to come out and set a tempo for ourselves.”

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 21 points off the bench, while P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul both added 19 points. James Harden had 18 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

“A little bit of legs and non-communication and giving them easy points, easy opportunities — a little bit of everything,” Harden said. “But first game, you just continue to build those good habits and continue to get better every single game. We’ll be all right.”

The Pelicans dominated the first half, taking an early lead and never relinquished it as they hammered the undersized Rockets in the paint. New Orleans led 71-54 at the break and led by 29 points in the second half. The Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 54-37.

“It was a good win for us, but to be honest, we feel like if we play at the level we’re supposed to — we’re not surprised,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We played exactly how we have to in order to beat that team.”

New Orleans dominated Houston in paint scoring, 76-44, and also shot 40 percent on 10 of 25 shooting from 3, compared with a rusty 33.3 percent (16 of 48) from the Rockets.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t seem overly alarmed by the defensive display, praising New Orleans’ energy.

“They played harder, longer and did a better job,” D’Antoni said. “They played great, but at the same time, there was a period in there where we got really tired and then trying to figure things out, being tired doesn’t work, and we didn’t have the energy and we kind of let go of the rope at the end of the first half. We obviously have some things to work on, we’ve got to get our legs and then go after it.”

Coming off the bench for Houston with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Rockets offseason pickup Carmelo Anthony received a standing ovation when he entered the game wearing his trademark headband and the No. 7. Anthony made his first two shot attempts, the first, from 3, and finished 3-of-10 shooting for nine points in 27 minutes.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: C Jahlil Okafor (right ankle sprain) entered the game late in the fourth quarter, playing less than two minutes.

Rockets: PG Michael Carter-Williams (left knee soreness) played on a minutes restriction as a precaution, with D’Antoni setting the cap around 15 minutes. Carter-Williams played 16 minutes and had 10 points. … Centers Nene (right calf tightness) and Zhou Qi (left knee sprain) did not play.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

Before the game, the Rockets honored the life of late Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen on the big screen wearing a Portland hat, offering a tribute and moment of silence. Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who also owned the Seattle Seahawks, died Monday in Seattle from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his company Vulcan Inc. He was 65.

A PERFECT 10

Elfrid Payton‘s minimalist triple-double made him the first player to record exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a single game since March 2, 2013 when Kyle Lowry did it for Toronto. It was Payton’s 11th career triple-double.

HE SAID IT

“For all you analytics guys, we’re not winning 82 (games) this year. That’s done, that’s all about how it’s been proven.” – D’Antoni.

UP NEXT

Pelicans: Host Kings on Friday.

Rockets: At Lakers on Saturday.

Jahlil Okafor leaves game with ankle injury, on crutches after game, will get MRI

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This is the opposite of how Jahlil Okafor wanted to start his Pelicans career.

He had 8 points on 4-of-7 shooting on the night, then with just seconds left in the Pelicans’ first preseason game, Okafor went down with what looked to be a sprained ankle after tripping over the foot of a Bulls’ player in transition.

New Orleans is Okafor’s chance to prove he still has a role in the NBA. The former No. 3 pick out of Duke has battled injuries throughout his career but also has watched the game quickly evolve away from his old-school style of play. Throw in his poor defense and it’s been hard for him to find a spot, but the Pelicans gave a chance to be the fourth man in a rotation with Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle.

This injury is a setback in that goal. Hopefully, he will not be out long.

Anthony Davis and Pelicans enter yet another season full of speculation about their future together

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA preview stories, with at least one a day appearing on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, today it is New Orleans.

In Anthony Davis‘ lifetime, 22 players have made an All-NBA first team during their first six seasons. Just seven did so without reaching a conference finals in that span. Of those seven, only one began his seventh season with his original team.

Anthony Davis is set to become the second.

Davis, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, has made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once in six years with the Pelicans. He’s following the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves while advancing in the playoffs only once with them, in his ninth season.

That’s the same Kevin Garnett whom Anthony used as somewhat of a cautionary tale about remaining loyal to a franchise. And the most recent example of someone who became an All-NBA first-teamer so young without reaching the conference finals: Chris Paul, who engineered a trade from New Orleans after his sixth season there.

Uneasy parallels abound for the Pelicans as they try to keep Davis happy.

Of course, Davis is neither Paul nor Garnett nor anybody but Anthony Davis. Davis has mostly stayed on message: His priority is winning in New Orleans.

I believe that. But what if he determines he can’t win enough with the Pelicans? Will he choose them or a team he believes offers a better chance of on-court success. That, I don’t know.

The Pelicans should gain clarity next summer, when they can offer Davis a super-max extension that projects to be worth about $240 million over five years (about $48 million annually).

If he were to wait to leave in 2020 unrestricted free agency, Davis would have a projected max with another team of about $152 million over four years (about $38 million annually). Even if he got traded before then so he could re-sign with his new team in 2020, his projected max would still be “just” about $205 million over five years (about $41 million annually). He can get the super-max from only New Orleans.

If Davis is predisposed to stay with the Pelicans anyway, why wouldn’t he just take that monster offer next summer?

Again, speculation centers on New Orleans’ underwhelming results since drafting him No. 1 overall in 2012. The Pelicans have tried to fast-track their ascension around Davis, repeatedly trading first-round picks. They haven’t won enough to justify that strategy, and it has resulted in a roster primed for disappointment going forward.

Jrue Holiday is nice. Nikola Mirotic is underrated. Julius Randle could take another step. Otherwise, New Orleans’ supporting cast doesn’t make a convincing case.

Of course, the Pelicans could exceed expectations. They sure did last year, winning 48 games and sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers even after DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury.

Davis is locked up for two more years. If he makes another All-NBA team next season, he’ll be eligible to re-sign for the supermax in 2020 no matter how he performs during the 2019-20 season. Next season is not necessarily a breaking point.

But it’ll be another data point in Davis’ ongoing assessment of New Orleans. That assessment will be guided by a new agent (maybe Rich Paul, who represents Lakers superstar LeBron James) – which only adds variability to the equation.

The stakes are high. The small-market Pelicans would likely fall into into irrelevance if they lose Davis, which is precisely why they won’t rush to move him. But if they’re going to lose Davis, they’re better off trading him while his value nears its peak so they can get assets that will help in a new era. Whichever team gets Davis will likely vault up the championship-contention ladder.

Eyes will be on Davis and New Orleans, searching for any sign of discord. That might not be fair considering all Davis has done to fit in with the Pelicans, but it’s also reality. The vultures are swarming.

It has been this way for years now. Davis and the Pelicans are used to it, and neither he nor the team has budged much from their stated plan of sticking together.

But the super-max-extension window is around the corner with only the upcoming season in between. It’ll be a big one for determining whether everything in New Orleans is still on track.

Jahlil Okafor ready to help Pelicans where ‘atmosphere is all about winning’

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Jahlil Okafor sounds like a guy who just wants a chance to prove himself.

The former No. 3 pick out of Duke has battled injuries in his short career but also has watched the game quickly evolve away from his style of play (his poor defense has become an anchor). He has signed on in New Orleans, where the Pelicans will give him a chance as a backup big, a chance to be the fourth man in a rotation with Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle.

Okafor talked about the chance and playing with fellow Chicagoan Davis, and improving on his weaknesses in a visit on C.J McCollum’s podcast (hat tip The Bird Writes).

“There were several guys there; AD was one of the guys there. You know, he’s a Chicago guy so he’s somebody that I’ve always been able to watch and monitor because when I was a freshman, he was the No. 1 high school player in the country as a senior. I was able to do the same thing. Then he went to Kentucky, won a national championship; then I went to Duke and copied him — did the same thing and won a national championship. He’s always been like a mark for me to look at. He’s not too much older than me, but a role model in the sense of just the success he’s had and he’s always done everything the right way. So, I’m excited to be able to team up with him and be with him on a day-to-day basis…

“The knock on me has always been my defense and my rebounding. I let the coaches know that I’m aware of that, and obviously, they’re aware of that. They know that I’m 150 percent bought into doing whatever it takes to win. I think I’ve taken the necessary steps this summer just to become a better defender, a better rebounder — just because I’m moving better and I’m doing all of the right stuff. I’m really excited about it…

“With the Pelicans in particular, I’m going to a team with aspirations of winning a championship, and that the whole organization and atmosphere is all about winning. That’s not something I’ve been accustomed to since I’ve been in the NBA; it’s sort of been the opposite.”

Before you think that’s some massive shot at Philadelphia and Brooklyn, think about it. He was on “the process” Sixers that were not winning games, and just as Philly started to get good last season Okafor was traded to Brooklyn, another team that was rebuilding. This season is different because he’s got a chance to contribute to a team thinking big (they’re not winning a title, but steps forward are possible).

Okafor is getting a chance, which is all he can ask. He says he has dealt with the anxiety and mental part of his game that was holding him back. He will be battling Cheick Diallo and Alexis Ajinca (if healthy) for minutes. Okafor needs to show he can run the floor and play the up-tempo style the Pelicans prefer, that he can set picks and roll to the rim, that he is more than a back-to-the-basket old-school guy with no shooting range, and that he can defend.

For New Orleans, bringing Okafor in was a low-risk gamble. For Okafor, this may be his last chance to prove he has an NBA role. He seems to get that, but we’ll see how it plays out.

Jahlil Okafor says he’s ‘learned how to identify, manage different stressors such as anxiety’

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Jahlil Okafor is trying to take advantage of his chance with the New Orleans Pelicans this season.

He talked about it in an Instagram post, and most people focused on the pictures of his improved physique. Which is improved.

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My summer of transformation: First off I want to thank @idanwan & @dzandertraining for getting after it with me the moment my season ended. Grateful to have two of the best in their respective fields work with me all summer. Although the physical changes in this photo are evident, their has been extreme growth unbenounced to the eye. I’ve learned how to identify and manage different stressors such as anxiety. Learning how to identify certain stressors has also allowed me to over come them. Often times because of my size and profession people may view me in a certain way, but in reality I deal with the same struggles as countless others. Mental health awareness is a cause I will fight for the rest of my life and if you’re struggling today don’t be afraid to speak with someone and seek help. I would like to thank @kevinlove and the @playerstribune for helping me identify my feelings and informing me what I was dealing with was in fact normal. 6 weeks left in the off season; with a lot more work to do!

A post shared by Jahlil Okafor (@jah8) on

However, the text was interesting:

I’ve learned how to identify and manage different stressors such as anxiety. Learning how to identify certain stressors has also allowed me to over come them…. Mental health awareness is a cause I will fight for the rest of my life and if you’re struggling today don’t be afraid to speak with someone and seek help. I would like to thank @kevinlove and the @playerstribune for helping me identify my feelings and informing me what I was dealing with was in fact normal.

NBA players stepping forward and admitting they need help dealing with mental challenges and illness is a good thing. Kevin Love helped Okafor, and hopefully Okafor talking about it will help others.

Okafor has a clean slate in New Orleans. He missed much of last season due to injury, and between his time with the Sixers and Nets he was on the court for just 353 minutes total. In New Orelans there are bench minutes available (behind Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle, but Okafor needs to show he can run the floor and play the up-tempo style the Pelicans employ. Okafor’s below the rim, back-to-the-basket offensive game, plus he poor defense, have held him back. If he’s got his body and mind right, maybe some of that can change.