On a night when the best player on the planet showed he’s not yet over the hill, a team missing the one who looks to be his successor proved that basketball is more than a one-man game.
The Pelicans, with Anthony Davis gone after just 6:30 and going against LeBron James on a shooting tear, gained their most satisfying victory of this season — or maybe in quite a few — Friday with their 119-114 victory against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sold out — but not nearly filled — Smoothie King Center.
“Any win you have, you feel really good about,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Our guys fought under tough circumstances and still won.
“That makes it very special.”
Williams’ joy was tempered by Davis leaving the game — and the arena floor — midway through the first quarter with what was officially described as a “chest contusion.”
He did not return to the floor and was absent from the locker room. There was no update after the game.
“It’s not something you want to think about in the middle of the game,” said forward Ryan Anderson. “I hope he’s well.
“We’re praying for him.”
It would have seemed that the Pelicans didn’t have a prayer when Davis exited.
James, who sat out Thursday’s loss at Oklahoma City with a sore knee and who was the subject of a story by longtime chronicler Brian Windhorst of ESPN earlier this week suggesting that at just a couple of weeks shy of his 30th birthday, LBJ was starting to decline physically while making up for it with his basketball savvy, scored 19 first-quarter points.
He would finish with 41, matching his season high, in 37 minutes, 37 seconds, just under his season average of 38:01.
Obviously there’s a still a lot of tread on those tires.
But while LBJ was wowing the crowd, a good portion of which came to see him play judging from the jerseys they were wearing plus the noise they made whenever he did something, a funny thing was happening.
The Pelicans, already missing Eric Gordon for the 10th straight game with a torn labrum, didn’t go away.
With Anderson (30 points) and Tyreke Evans (a season-high 31) providing much of the firepower, Omer Asik (14 rebounds) helping to make up for Davis’ absence on the boards and seemingly everyone else pitching in, the Pels were tied at 33 after one quarter, up 64-59 after two, 89-76 after three and by as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter — both times after two of Anderson’s eight 3-pointers — before the Cavs got it to five three times in the final minute.
But by then, the visitors had essentially surrendered, puling James with 2:11 left and his team down 112-99 after one of Evans’ many running jumpers.
It fell to second-year man Luke Babbitt, whose unenviable task it was to guard James most of the night, to deliver the final dagger — a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left after the Cavs had closed to 112-107.
“I battled all night and tried to make (James) take tough shots,” Babbitt said. “I felt like I owed by teammates a little bit with that one.”
If Babbitt making the clinching shot was unexpected, perhaps so was the performance by the two leading scorers.
Anderson was only 4-of-25 from 3-point range in his last five games. On this night he matched his career high — in 14 attempts.
Evans was just 4-of-11 with no free throws in Wednesday’s loss at Dallas. On Friday, he was 13-of-24 and got to the line for five shots, making three.
Add 10 assists, matching the season’s best he had in the Pels’ first game at Cleveland, and you have a pretty good night for No. 1, who was still in uniform and limping noticeably 30 minutes after the game.
“The knee’s bothering me,” he said. “But we all had to keep fighting to get the win tonight.
“When AD went out, nobody backed down. It just shows the kind of heart we have on this team.”
And they’re going to have to show that heart.
With Gordon still out for at least two more weeks, Davis’ condition unknown and an upcoming schedule that features 13 of the next 14 games against teams that made the playoffs next year, it’s going to be a test to show if this team can at least maintain contact with the rest of the Western Conference playoff contenders between now and the first week of the new year.
They’re 11-11, and, with Phoenix’s upset loss at home to lowly Detroit, tied with the Suns for eighth place in the West with Golden State, the team with the league’s best record (19-2) coming to the SKC on Sunday.
“Tonight we had the crowd behind when we got it going,” Evans said. “When you keep knocking down big shots, that’s going to happen.
“This was big for us, not backing down against a hot team. Golden State’s a tough team that got us up there (112-85 a week ago). We’re going to have to bring it.”
Just like they did on Friday.