It appeared Anthony Davis would be knocked out of Friday’s pivotal game against the Phoenix Suns after being elbowed in the throat at the beginning of the second quarter.
After the Pelicans weathered the Suns and then some, Davis came back more physical and intense.
In a game marking the return of point guard Jrue Holiday from a 41-game injury absence, the Pelicans put their playoff-run shoes back on and handled the pesky Suns 90-75 at the Smoothie King Center.
“Honestly, when he didn’t come out for the huddle after halftime, we thought it was pretty serious,” said forward Dante Cunningham, who led a spirited bench performance with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting and nine rebounds. “But we didn’t hear any bad news, and he’s a warrior. We had to play. The other team is not going to stop playing hard.”
The victory, coming after a 36-point loss at Memphis on Wednesday, kept New Orleans (43-36) in control of its destiny as it tries to ward off Oklahoma City (43-36) for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. The Thunder beat Sacramento on Friday, but the Pelicans hold the tiebreaker if the teams finish the season with the same record.
The win was New Orleans’ sixth in eight games with three to play as it seeks its first playoff berth since 2011, when that team went 46-36.
Phoenix (39-41), already eliminated but wanting to end the season with a winning record, lost for the eighth time in nine games.
The Pelicans won by outrebounding the Suns 56-43. New Orleans had been outrebounded by 153-119 in its previous three games. Playing 22 minutes, 10 seconds, center Omer Asik grabbed 18.
And the bench outscored the Suns’ reserves 36-18. Norris Cole joined Cunningham with 12 points, shooting 5-of-6, along with six assists.
Holiday, who entered to a “Jruuuuuuue!” chant and a standing ovation at 1:05 of the first quarter, played 16 minutes, one more than coach Monty Williams said he would in each of the final four games. Looking rusty, he shot 1-of-7 but was a factor defensively, along with Cole, in holding the Suns’ Eric Bledsoe to 7-of-19 shooting.
“I liked his explosion that he shows and his poise,” Williams said. “He and Dante were scrapping and coming up with loose balls.”
Holiday said he was proud of he energy he brought.
“I was a little bit too excited,” he said. “There were times when I went to the basket and tried to make a play. I was really amped, I’m not going to lie.”
Davis suffered the bruised throat 15 seconds into the second quarter and left the game. The Pelicans said at halftime that he was questionable to return.
He was attempting to drive to the basket when he was hit by Phoenix backup center Earl Barron. It was ruled a non-shooting foul, and Davis immediately was replaced by Alexis Ajinca. The Pelicans, who led by 11 points twice in the second quarter, held on to lead 47-41 at halftime and also played the third without him.
Davis didn’t talk after the game — he couldn’t. Holiday said he used his hands to communicate with teammates when he re-entered the game.
“Maybe if he would’ve like texted it to us,” Holiday said, drawing laughter.
The Pelicans had their shaky moments as the Suns came to 49-48 at 9:08 of the third. But Ryan Anderson sank a 3-pointer on the fast break after 0-of-5 shooting, and that started the Pelicans back on their way.
They outscored the Suns 11-4 in taking a 60-52 lead, then fought them off the rest of the quarter, ending it with a 70-60 margin.
Davis started the fourth quarter. A minute into it, he grabbed a rebound forcefully, then scored a driving basket on the other end.
With Davis and Holiday both noticeably physical, the Pelicans took a 76-62 lead and kept building. Davis dunked a lob from Quincy Pondexter with 1:20 showing, pushing the lead to 90-71 and drawing a chorus of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants from the fans.