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Rockets vs. Pelicans final score: Houston crumbles before Anthony Davis, New Orleans

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With no Howard or Harden, Anthony Davis and the Pelicans were too much for the Rockets.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans stomped the Houston Rockets Tuesday night, 117-98, giving the Rockets their first loss of the preseason after starting 3-0.

Kostas Papanikolaou was the Rockets' best offensive player; Big Papa finished with 13 points on eight shots, 2 boards and 2 steals. Trevor Ariza had another solid, all-around game that will mean more when James Harden and Dwight Howard are in the lineup. The Rockets' pair of stars sat out for the second straight game, but it seems likely they will play in the next game, Oct. 19 against the Golden State Warriors

The highlight of the first half was the shooting of Troy Daniels. He made three 3-pointers within a couple of minutes at the end of the first quarter, the last one from several steps behind the arc. He didn't even graze the rim. I know no one knows his postseason performance last year was a fluke, but I don't think anyone but Daniels' D-League coaches could have predicted he'd be this good. Who can't wait to see this guy come in off the bench this year?

Speaking of coming off the bench, Kostas Papanikolaou started this game and proved Kevin McHale right when he said he had some playmaking ability. Look what Big Papa did to perhaps the NBA's best shot blocker, Anthony Davis, in the second quarter.

Big Papa made two layups -- that gem included -- right in The Brow's grill in that quarter, but Davis did stuff the crap out of him on another. Can't win 'em all, Big Papa.

More remarkably, with Terrence Jones, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley in the lineup with him, Big Papa was the go-to scorer, and he didn't do poorly. That move on Davis is an example of his crazy, Scola-esque game. Lots of pump-fakes, great footwork, next to no athleticism. He was starting as the shooting guard, oddly enough, but it was hard to peg whose fault it was that the Pelicans shot better than 60 percent in the first half. Not one player alone, surely.

A big reason for the Pellies' shooting success? How ridiculously dominant Anthony Davis was. Without Dwight Howard to protect the rim or cover him 1-on-1, Davis feasted, finishing with a ridiculous 26 points on 9/11 shooting with 8 rebounds, 4 blocks and one turnover in 31 minutes. The Rockets pulled the game to within seven points in the third quarter, then Davis came in and the game was basically over.

As a sidenote: is Anthony Davis going into the season as the Western Conference's best player now that Kevin Durant is hurt? I'd put Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook in that category, too, but Davis is getting better and better by minute, it seems, and if the Pelicans seriously improve, he could be a dark horse MVP candidate. He's an insanely dominant defensive force who now owns a pure jumper out the 15-feet, could be the best fast-break finisher in the league and can attack off the dribble. He can do everything well, and he's bigger and stronger than he was last year.

Back to the Rockets -- Tarik Black was again impressive, throwing down a huge dunk, prompting a super weird response from color guy Matt Bullard. He's a better athlete than Joey Dorsey and Jeff Adrien, who both struggled to finish around the rim. Dorsey looks especially lost on offense despite his hustle, although he did have one nice turnaround hook shot. Adrien missed an easy dunk and didn't rebound as well as he had been, although he admitted before the game that a foot injury he suffered against the Suns the previous night was still bothering him.

Maybe I'm delusional, but if McHale is seeing what I'm seeing, the bench is beginning to sort itself out. Unless he slips in the next wave of preseason games (they play four games in six days later in the month, with four days off before the season opener), he should be Trevor Ariza's backup. If Tarik Black can stop fouling like it's Summer League, he and Donatas Motiejunas (who did not play well against the Pelicans) would be the backup bigs,

As for the guard battle, Isaiah Canaan was a non-factor until the fourth quarter again. Ish Smith is lightning fast, great with the ball, and whips passes around the perimeter. Even though he can't shoot at all, Smith just brings more to the team when he's on the floor.

Microwave Daniels, Big Papa, D-Mo and Black as the back end of a rotation makes me nervous, but I think that's looking like the clubhouse favorite. What do you think?