In New Orleans, Anthony Davis scored a playoff franchise-record 47 points as the Pelicans center completely dominated in the first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns answered the critics who questioned his effort and ability with 18 points and 16 rebounds Saturday in a 121-105 win over the Houston Rockets, giving the Timberwolves their first postseason win in 14 years.
And in Miami, Joel Embiid returned to the lineup and led the Philadelphia 76ers to win two straight games — including the 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat — to seize control of their opening-round series.
In an era of basketball where stretch fours and fives have many 7-footers believing they have a green light from beyond the 3-point arc, the first round of the playoffs has proven that size — traditional back-to-the-basket, low-post size — still matters.
It’s not just the play of Davis, Towns and Embiid, who all had a big impact on their team’s wins on Saturday.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 12 rebounds as his team took a 2-1 series advantage over the Oklahoma City Thunder with Saturday’s 115-102 win.
And Washington’s Marcin Gortat scored 16 points (hitting eight of 10 shots) in the win April 20 over the Toronto Raptors, and will have to play a big role if his team wants to even its first-round series Sunday night.
Embiid claimed two weeks ago that he’s “the best center in the league,” a sentiment shared Saturday by former NBA power forward Charles Oakley, who tweeted this:
We haven’t seen anyone like @JoelEmbiid since Wilt Chamberlain
— Charles Oakley (@CharlesOakley34) April 20, 2018
Embiid, at times, struggled in Saturday’ game against Miami as he committed eight turnovers while missing nine of his 11 shots from the field (including failing on all four of his 3-point attempts). He scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and his defensive presence (five blocks) had as much to do with the Sixers’ win as J.J. Redick’s game-high 24 points and Ben Simmons recording the first triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists) by an NBA rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980.
Embiid’s good. But, with all due respect to both Embiid and Oakley, Davis is the league’s best big. Far from a traditional back-to-the-basket big, Davis scores many of his points on pick-and-rolls, putbacks and the occasional pick-and-pop.
Davis, in his fifth year, averaged 33 points (on 57 percent shooting) and 12 rebounds in the opening round. In Saturday’s closeout game, Davis had 47 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, becoming just the second player to do that in a playoff game since Hakeem Olajuwon had 49 points, 25 rebounds and six blocks in Houston’s playoff game against Seattle in 1987.
“This is probably the best game he’s played since I’ve been here,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said of Davis. “I thought AD was one of the top players in the league when I came, and he’s improved lot since then.”
Especially his ability to score around the basket. Yet Davis is versatile enough to launch shots from beyond the 3-point line with confidence, which is a shift from the traditional big men who dominated the NBA in the 1990s. Davis has attempted and made more 3-pointers over his past two regular seasons than dominant big men such as Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, Olajuwon and Tim Duncan totaled in their entire careers:
Career 3-point BASKETS/Attempts
- Anthony Davis (2016-17, 2017-18 combined) 95/296
- Tim Duncan (career) 30/168
- Patrick Ewing (career) 19/125
- Hakeem Olajuwon (career) 25/ 124
- Shaquille O’Neal (career) 1/22
The last NBA team to win a title with a dominant big man? That would be the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 when Duncan — a few years past his prime — was the second-leading scorer on a team that beat the Miami Heat in five games to win the championship.
Can Davis get the Pelicans that far? As well as he has played, he’ll have his hands full in the next round as he’s likely to face a Golden State Warriors team that’s attempting to reach its fourth straight NBA Finals.
Embiid might have a better shot of being the first dominant big man to reach the NBA Finals in a while, especially in a conference that’s wide open with the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling and the Boston Celtics’ chances affected by the late-season loss of Kyrie Irving.
The balance, depth and intensity of the Sixers make them legitimate contenders.
“We know they’re the third seed,” Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of the Sixers on Saturday. “This is a very good team. They execute very well, they’re very well coached and they have a lot of talent in a lot of different positions. They put the right team together.”
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