I remember it like it was yesterday. Alvin Gentry, freshly soaked in champagne yelling into the camera to Anthony Davis. Still, technically a coach for the champion Golden State Warriors but already the next head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, Gentry was sending a message to his superstar.
Some time just before this, Gentry had said something else. Something that also caught my ear and lingered, creating a shroud of doubt around Gentry's selection as head coach. It was a message not to a future player, but to a past colleague in Mike D'Antoni.
Victorious Gentry: "Tell Mike D'Antoni he's vindicated! We just kicked everyone's ass playing the way everybody complained about!"— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 17, 2015
There was a conviction in Gentry's tone around all of this that worried me. He sounded like a zealot, steadfast in his belief of how to win in the NBA. Throughout the first two seasons of Gentry's tenure, that worry grew. Faster and faster. More pace, more fast breaks. Guards haplessly trying to execute at a speed just beyond their reach to appease their taskmaster of a head coach. I didn't believe it was the right approach. I worried even more after DeMarcus Cousins was added.
Now it's working.
It was working before Boogie went down too, in a much different (and slower) manner. Gentry can change. He can take and even welcome the council of others like newly acquired assistant Chris Finch. The things Gentry either already knew and were reinforced, or learned under Steve Kerr, have blossomed. Gentry's greatest strength, until Boogie went down, was his ability to adapt to his best players. It takes a man truly confident in himself, and focused on the goal of winning as a franchise, to be a certified offensive savant of a basketball coach, and yet welcome another related but clearly different offensive coach to come on as an assistant.
The Pelicans are up 2-0 on the Portland Trail Blazers, and it is thanks in large part to the conviction this team has in its way to play. Gentry could have put Emeka Okafor in the rotation; he could have played to mitigate Portland's strengths and in turn slowed the game down. Kevin, Preston, and I were all asking for it just seven days ago. No. Gentry has done the opposite. Everything fast — Okafor has yet to log a minute. New Orleans is actively playing Jusuf Nurkic off the floor.
Now, it is Portland who is searching for an identity. Brent Barry remarked multiple times during Game 2 that the Blazers were playing the Pelicans kind of game. Quick shots, pace, and in the second half, a nearly complete abandonment of crashing the offensive glass. New Orleans is not merely controlling the game on the scoreboard, they are controlling the very methods of engagement. Gentry has the high ground, and Terry Stotts appears to be flailing at how to respond. Nothing made that more evident than the desperate minutes with Al-Farouq Aminu playing center in the fourth quarter on Tuesday evening.
Gentry believes and he has, in turn, passed that conviction to his players. Rajon Rondo is steadfastly executing the game plan. Anthony Davis is running the floor, expecting the ball at any moment, and the rest of his teammates (thank you, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic, and Darius Miller) are adeptly spreading the floor. Jrue Holiday is attacking the rim with purpose and finishing at the highest rate of his entire career. There are few greater compliments to give a coach than that he has passed his belief on how his team should play onto his players.
An unlucky injury and a couple weeks of struggle molded this Boogie-less version of the Pelicans. A handful of clutch wins and the ideal playoff match-up have allowed Gentry’s vision to blossom. It is his conviction, his zealotry, that is allowing New Orleans to seize control of this series.