AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Before Sunday’s game against the Detroit Pistons, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry asserted that, had New Orleans not been decimated by injuries this season, Anthony Davis would be an MVP candidate.
His words, by the end of his team’s 111-106 victory, seemed like an understatement, if anything: The Pelicans star had a career-high 59 points to go with 20 rebounds in a performance that is best contextualized not within Davis’ season or career but in franchise and NBA history.
The list of statistics demonstrating his game’s place in history is lengthy: Davis broke the Pelicans single-game franchise record of 50 points — set by Jamal Mashburn in 2003 on the same date (Feb. 21) that Davis surpassed the mark — and scored more points than any other NBA player has in a game this season; he became the youngest player since at least the 1963-64 season to score 59 points in a game; he became the second-youngest player in NBA history to record a 50-point, 20-rebound game; and he became the third player since the 1983-84 NBA season to record a 50-point, 20-rebound game.
Davis, who turns 23 next month, scored in nearly every fashion imaginable. At times, he spun his way to the hoop for easy layups. At other moments, he stepped back to nail jumpers that did not touch the rim. Twice, he made 3-pointers.
“After a while, you feel like any shot that you put up is going to go in,” Davis said. “I definitely felt like that tonight.”
Before Sunday’s game, Davis’ career high was 43 points, which he had reached on three occasions. On Sunday, he surpassed that total with 8 minutes, 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter. He finished one rebound shy of his career high as well.
The Pistons, however much they tried, could not stop Davis; he made 24 of 34 field-goal attempts. The closest they came to slowing him down came when the Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson launched a shot from beyond half court as time expired in the third quarter: Davis stood under the basket, where Pistons guard Steve Blake, listed at 6-foot-3, gave him a bear hug.
Davis said he wasn’t keeping track of his scoring output, but the bench kept him informed during timeouts. Gentry, an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors when Klay Thompson set an NBA record by scoring 37 points in a quarter last season, said he doesn’t enjoy historic performances as they are happening.
“You don’t enjoy it until afterward,” he said. “I think afterward you really appreciate what he’s done and the magnitude ... of the things that he did.”
Despite Davis’ dominance, the victory did not come easily. Pelicans center Omer Asik left the game in the first quarter with a right ankle sprain and did not return, and they trailed in the fourth quarter after Pistons forward Tobias Harris hit a 3-pointer with 10:22 remaining.
But Davis was too much for the Pistons to overcome. He scored the game’s first points and had eight by the end of the first quarter. That grew to 26 at halftime and then 40 by the end of the third quarter. Gentry credited Davis’ success to the space the Pelicans gave him to operate, a feature the offense has been lacking with key players like Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon out with injury.
Davis, who noted that his phone was “blowing up” after the game, said the significance of his performance hadn’t quite hit him yet. Scoring 50 points, he said, has always been a goal. He remembers achieving the milestone by scoring 54 points in high school, a game in which he recorded a quadruple-double. But Davis had never scored 59 points in a game at any level.
“People get 40, that’s tough to get. Thirty, kind of tough in the NBA. But 50?” Davis said before pausing to chuckle. “That’s 50, you know? And everybody can’t get 50. Not a lot of people get 50.”
But Davis did Sunday, joining Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber as the only NBA players with 50 points and 20 rebounds in a game since 1983.
“I don’t think it will really sink in until tomorrow what I did today,” Davis said. “But being in the history books with C-Webb and Shaq? That’s something special.”