Pelicans’ Anthony Davis set to square off with Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge

When the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis abruptly returned to the court Wednesday in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, it was just five days after coach Monty Williams said the Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge is his top candidate for NBA MVP.

Aldridge has been having a spectacular season, a big reason the Trail Blazers are 22-5 and have the second-best record in the Western Conference. But he plays the same position as Davis, the top pick in the 2012 drat.

Coming back Wednesday gave Davis — who had been sidelined since Dec. 1 with a fractured left hand — a game to knock off some rust before facing Aldridge, who’s averaging 23.3 points and 11.1 rebounds. The Pelicans (11-13) and Blazers meet at 9 p.m. Saturday in Portland’s Moda Center.

“What (Aldridge) is putting up, he’s always had that,” said Williams, who coached Aldridge when he was an assistant with the Blazers. “He’s always worked hard, always wanted people to recognize him for this. Now he’s getting a shot, and all of the work is paying off for him.

“He’s a great guy; he’s all about the team. And he’s showing everybody that he’s probably the best power forward in the game.”

Last February, Davis was a rookie when Williams said Aldridge was the best power forward in the NBA. The next night, on Feb. 13, Davis had one of his more memorable games — as if to make a point with Williams.

Davis had 21 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots, sprinting up and down the court for dunks like a man on a mission. He played just 28 minutes as New Orleans won 99-63, its biggest margin of the season.

In three meetings last season, Davis averaged 18 points and 8.6 rebounds to Aldridge’s 14.0 points and 4.0 rebounds. New Orleans won the series 2-1.

Both players appear improved this season, with Davis showing a better jump shot and looking more active defensively. He is averaging 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and a league-best 3.41 blocked shots.

Aldridge looks different, too.

“He came into the league as a good shooter,” Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph said. “But he’s doing a lot more in the low post now. And he’s a better rebounder.”

Aldridge has 16 games when he reached double figures in both points and rebounds, and he has had two games with 20 rebounds or more. On Dec. 12, he had 31 points and 25 rebounds in a home win over Houston and Dwight Howard, prompting Williams’ comments about Aldridge being his MVP favorite.

The Pelicans also will face Robin Lopez, who had career highs of 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds last season as New Orleans’ starting center. Lopez is averaging 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds this season, but he also has helped free Aldridge to play his game and improved the starting five’s chemistry.

Not all have been overly impressed with the Blazers, citing an easy early part of the schedule. But aside from two wins against Houston, Portland also has beaten league powers San Antonio, Indiana and Oklahoma City.

The Blazers won 11 games in a row in November, mostly against Eastern Conference teams with losing records. The Blazers won nine of 10 to start December before being pummeled by Minnesota on Wednesday. But that game marked the end of a stretch of four road games in five nights.

Against the Clippers, Davis appeared ready for any challenge, posting 24 points and 12 rebounds. As he did against Aldridge, he ran the court well, getting seven dunks.

“He came out with good energy, was running really hard and was really effective in transition,” Pelicans center Jason Smith said. “That’s what he does. He hasn’t skipped a beat.”

NOTES: French 7-foot-2 center Alexis Ajinca, who agreed a two-year contract with the Pelicans, is slated to join the team before the game. The Pelicans bought out his contract with Euro League team Strasbourg. … The Pelicans are 0-3 on their western road trip, with games remaining against Portland and Monday at Sacramento. Since winning 99-84 at Memphis on Nov. 6, New Orleans has lost seven consecutive road games against Western Conference teams. … Blazers point guard Damien Lillard has scored 36 points in each of the past two games, combining to shoot 15-of-26 on 3-pointers.