The New Orleans Pelicans were in a bad place in February. DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season and his future was in doubt. The team had lost five of six games since his injury and slipped out of playoff position in the standings.
With the entire team in a depression, coach Alvin Gentry came to Anthony Davis with a message. Davis had put up a few duds since Cousins went down. A 6-of-19 shooting night, a couple of 6-of-16 nights. Games where he had scored just 14, 15 points. He was having to play center more, a position he loathed. He liked having the advantage on power forwards; leaning on centers tired out his legs. His shots in the fourth quarter were short when he played center, he ran low on energy.
“I told him, ‘Look, you don’t have to put pressure on yourself,'” Gentry remembered. “I just wanted him to play more free, to play like himself.”
For the greatest players in the NBA there is often a moment of consciousness. A time when they come to understand their power, how those select few at the apex can often control so many things around them. They intimidate their opponents, they capture the crowd, they lift their teammates.
Sometimes it happens within a game — LeBron James had an awakening during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2007. Those who know Steph Curry say he changed after he made 11 of 13 3-pointers in Madison Square Garden in 2013. Sometimes it happens because of a change in situation — Steve Nash given the keys to the “seven seconds or less” offense in Phoenix, James Harden’s trade to Houston. There’s no exact road map, but for so many greats it happens when talent, experience and hard work meld into an understanding.
On a Saturday morning in Brooklyn last season, Davis might’ve had such a moment.
“I heard what Coach was saying to me, I know what he was trying to do,” Davis said. “But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be great and I had to accept the challenge. From that day forward, I had to understand that if I wanted to be great that I had to do it. I had to be great every night.
“I saw what Russ Westbrook did when [Kevin] Durant went down with that foot injury in OKC. And that’s what I told Coach Gentry I have to be. If I have to be Westbrook, I will be Westbook.”
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