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The Golden Breakdown: How the Warriors contained Anthony Davis

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The Pelicans activated Davis for their showdown against the defending champions, but the Warriors were able to make his night an inefficient one.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Merriam-Webster defines a unicorn as “a mythical, usually white animal generally depicted with the body and head of a horse, with a long flowing mane and tail, and a single, often spiraled horn in the middle of the forehead.”

The key word in that definition is “mythical.” Unicorns do not exist — that is, in a world where the NBA does not exist. In this world, filled with otherworldly displays of NBA superstar talent, unicorns definitely roam among the ordinary people of this great green Earth. One of these unicorns currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana. Instead of having a body and a head of a horse, he has a long, 6-foot-11-inch frame. Instead of a horn on his forehead, he has a unibrow, a sight which has become the symbol of a man that has dominated almost every opponent he has gone up against.

Anthony Davis is the poster boy of the modern NBA big man. His 6-foot-11-inch frame towers over most players in the NBA. But unlike the stereotypical slow and lumbering big man, he is agile and nimble. He has shown to be a guard in a center’s body — his excellent handles and great shooting, especially in the mid-range, are proof of that. On most nights, he has shown the ability to explode and take over the game on offense. It is no question that Davis is a perennial MVP candidate, and it is a matter of time before that accolade is awarded to him.

Coming into Wednesday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors, Davis had been on a personal rampage — averaging 27.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and 3.8 blocks, on a shooting split of .515/.571/.707, per Basketball Reference. He had only played four games, due to an elbow injury that sidelined him for two games. Coincidentally, those two games were losses against the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets. It was clear that without Davis, the Pelicans had a difficult time getting over the hump.

When it was announced that Davis was active and was coming back to play against the Warriors, the ante was immediately raised. The Warriors were going to have their hands full in trying to contain this beast of a player. It was now up to their lengthy defenders and center-by-committee rotation to keep Davis from exerting his will over the back-to-back defending champions.

Let’s take a look at how the Warriors dealt with this unicorn.

First quarter

In the very first possession of the game, the Pelicans immediately attempt to get Davis going, courtesy of a play designed to get him good position on the left block. The Pelicans employ cross-screening under the basket to get Davis switched onto Draymond Green — but that doesn’t seem so bad of a switch; after all, Green has proven in the past to be capable of defending Davis. Green successfully gets Davis out of the low post and close to the perimeter, and is also doing a great job at denying the entry pass. But Davis adjusts:

Davis spins baseline around Green’s overplay, and leaps up for the athletic alley-oop finish and the foul, courtesy of a push from behind by Green. Not a good start defensively for the Warriors.

In the following sequence, the Pelicans repeat the same cross-screening action under the basket. This time, they intend to switch Stephen Curry onto Davis, which if successful, would obviously have devastating results:

The Pelicans’ attempt to switch Davis onto Curry is not successful, due to Curry and Damian Jones doing a good job of staying on their men and not having to be forced to switch due to the screening action. Immediately after, Curry comes over for the double team on Davis, which forces him to pass out of the post to E’Twaun Moore — his drive is unsuccessful due to a great contest from Jones. This is a good defensive possession from the Warriors, having forced the ball out of Davis’ hands and preventing him from establishing an offensive rhythm.

In this sequence, Davis gets the ball on the right block, with Jones on him. Having had a string of respectable games as the Warriors’ starting center, Jones is now being counted upon to defend Davis one-on-one. And he does an excellent job in this possession:

Jones stays square, with his feet firmly planted. He makes it tough for Davis to back his way down closer toward the basket. Davis gives Jones a slight bump and goes up for the floater, which misses.

Soon after, Jones gets whistled for two quick fouls, and has to be taken out. Next up in the center-by-committee line is Kevon Looney, who now has the task of putting the clamps on Davis. In the following sequence, Davis gets the entry pass:

Looney does an excellent job of forcing Davis to catch the entry pass far from the basket. In turn, Davis opts to pass out to Frank Jackson, who badly misses the three-point attempt. Once again, the Warriors get the shot that they want from a player not named Anthony Davis.

Off of a missed free throw by Looney, the Pelicans push the ball and once again feed Davis on the left block. This time, Jonas Jerebko takes a shot at defending Davis:

Klay Thompson ignores his man and immediately goes over to double Davis. The Warriors’ defensive gameplan on Davis is laid bare here — whenever they think that Davis might have a possible mismatch or advantage in single coverage down low, they opt to double him immediately. The double team bothers Davis enough to pass it to Jackson, who is a non-threat; he misses the floater, and the Warriors again make the right decision on defense.

Second quarter

The Pelicans go on a run to take the lead from the Warriors, who are in the middle of a three-minute field goal drought. Davis checks back in after a few minutes of rest. Jordan Bell, the third man in the center-by-committee rotation, takes a crack at Davis:

Most of the time, Bell’s penchant for jumping on shot attempts gets him into trouble, but not this time. Once Davis receives the pass, he immediately goes up for the shot, but he gets bothered by Bell’s explosive athletic leap. The shot is off target, but the Pelicans get the offensive rebound. This leads to a Solomon Hill three-point attempt that misses anyway.

Bell gets Davis again in the following sequence. Davis opts to face up against Bell, and tries to draw out Bell’s penchant for biting on pump fakes:

Instead of falling for the shot attempt, Bell stays down. Davis, seemingly perplexed at Bell staying down and showing great discipline, is called for the travel.

In this possession, Davis gets the ball on the low post, and Bell is on him again. As expected, the Warriors attempt to double him to get the ball out of his hands, and that’s what they exactly end up forcing:

Davis kicks the ball out to an open Tim Frazier. Andre Iguodala rotates onto him and defends him exceptionally well, forcing the bad shot and leading to the Warriors pushing the pace in transition.

Looney comes back in with under five minutes to go in the first half. The Pelicans feed Davis the ball, with Looney on him. Curry comes over to double, which makes Davis rush his shot attempt:

Looney is an impenetrable and immovable brick wall in this possession. He does not surrender a single inch to Davis, which clearly bothers him. This leads to his shot missing, and the Pelicans are called for the offensive foul for pushing off under the basket.

Davis has been frustrated all night long on the low post, and he tries a mid-range baseline jumper to see if he can get a rhythm going. These shots are usually automatic for him:

However, Looney does a great job of closing in and contesting Davis’ jumper. Another miss for the struggling unicorn.

Third quarter

Jones comes back in to start the second half, and after a made three-point shot by Curry, he gets matched up against Davis right away:

Davis once again settles for a mid-range shot that misses. It’s clear that at this point, Davis is showing some hesitation at trying to bully his way toward the basket. Perhaps it’s also a consequence of him missing two games — his conditioning isn’t quite there yet.

Another great one-on-one coverage by Jones forces Davis to pass out of the post. Additionally, several players have collapsed into the paint, which make Davis hesitant to drive inside. This leads to a vintage defensive sequence from Green:

Davis’ kick out to Frazier toward the weak side corner is well covered by an excellent Green close out. The ball then makes its way to Jrue Holiday, and Green, ever the free safety on defense, makes his way back to the paint and successfully challenges Holiday’s drive.

Fourth quarter

Iguodala gets switched onto Davis during the following sequence. He is more than capable of defending someone taller than him, but it is still a clear mismatch, especially with someone of Davis’ caliber. Being the smart and high IQ defender that he is, Iguodala holds his own and forces the turnover:

Davis was able to get a bit of a groove in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too little, too late. A big offensive night from Curry (37 points) and Kevin Durant (24 points), as well as an excellent all-around performance from Green (16 points, 15 rebounds, 8 assists) led the Warriors to a victory over the Pelicans.

Davis finished with a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds. He had to bleed for those points, shooting an inefficient 6-of-16 from the field. The Warriors were able to contain him and prevent him from establishing a consistent offensive rhythm. They could live with the other players on the Pelicans making a few shots here and there. They could live with Jrue Holiday being the leading scorer for the Pelicans (28 points) — as long as the Pelicans’ MVP-caliber superstar struggled, and was made to work hard for his production.

Of course, Davis’ current condition — coming off of an elbow injury and clearly not a hundred percent conditioning-wise — was a clear factor. His usual aggression and assertiveness on offense seemed to take a leave of absence. But the Warriors will take whatever they can get. Davis is a proven monster, and he is one of the few players in the league that may single-handedly give the Warriors lots of trouble. There is no question that Davis is due for an offensive explosion on another night against the Warriors.

On Halloween night, however, the Warriors were able to make the unicorn look like a mule.

Nine down, 73 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.