In the basketball world, a place with immeasurable variables and factors that play into every game, it is astonishing how easy it is to reduce wins and losses to singular people. This plays into narrative thinking in sports, where it becomes imperative to boil down results into easily digestible pieces of information. It becomes plug-and-play: if a team’s coach is seen as bad or even average, than losses are blamed on him while wins get credited to other areas like players or luck.
The Pelicans coaching situation is one of the best examples of this. Since arriving three years ago, Alvin Gentry has been mostly disliked by the fans and clowned on by national and local media as being a mediocre coach or worse. The general narrative is that he doesn’t really know how to manage this team, and for the most part the widely-accepted storyline is that if the Pelicans win it’s because of the sheer talent of Anthony Davis, and if the Pelicans lose it’s because Alvin Gentry did something wrong.
I have not been immune from this reductive thinking. In fact, heading into the playoffs this season I lamented about the coaching matchup between Portland and New Orleans, afraid that Terry Stotts would easily outcoach Gentry. And in a series that seems close enough talent-wise, coaching can end up being the razor-thin margin that decides games and in turn the series. Gentry has done a much better job this season than the two prior, and my opinion of him has been improving as time has gone on. However, the reputation he has earned in his two losing seasons in New Orleans isn’t completely washed away. So going into game 1, I worried about Gentry not being prepared enough to go into a rowdy Rose Garden (don’t correct me) and pull off a win.
I first off want to acknowledge that a win doesn’t immediately mean that Gentry outcoached Stotts, or that Gentry coached a perfect game. Again, that sort of blame-game is reductive thinking. But in the first playoff game of an incredibly important season for the Pelicans, the team won a road game with a strong defensive performance, and it wasn’t squarely on the shoulders of any of the players. Gentry managed his rotations well, switched up his offense to counter the Blazers’ adjustments in the second half, and motivated his players to weather a late rally to walk out with a big win.
One of the things that stood out to me about this game was the way minutes were managed. In most games this season, Anthony Davis will leave the game towards the end of the first quarter or to start the second quarter, and Cheick Diallo or another center will start the second quarter. This behavior is usually mirrored at the end of the third/beginning of the fourth quarters as well. On Saturday night, Gentry subbed Davis out with a few minutes left in the first and third, and had him start the second and fourth in the game. This allowed Davis to start off every quarter, which was important to establishing tone.
A side note about this: Davis played 40 minutes, which is a lot of time to be on the court. However, in a game and series of such importance, I won’t put the Thibs mantle on Gentry for this one. The team’s success hinges on Davis, so the smart decision is to play him as much as possible. Davis looked fatigued at the end of the game, so expect Gentry to make adjustments there as well.
Another example of smart rotations was the use of Ian Clark. Clark was subbed in a little more than half-way through the first quarter and served as the primary ball-handler while Rondo was off the floor. Throughout the first quarter he played alongside Jrue, then Rondo in the second quarter, and both in the fourth. Clark finishing the game on the court with Rondo, Holiday, Mirotic and Davis gave the Pelicans one more shooter who can make plays, and he had a clutch three that held the Blazers at bay in the closing minutes.
Gentry also used his rotations effectively in response to Blazers runs and to defensive strategy. Entering the fourth quarter, the Pelicans were up by 12, and they started a roster of Diallo, Davis, Rondo, Moore, and Ian Clark. The Blazers started out hot, going on a 7-2 run in the first three minutes. Gentry saw that with Diallo on the floor, the spacing that had helped them build the team was gone, and the Blazers defense had adjusted. He called a timeout and inserted Mirotic back in the game, giving the Pelicans space that Rondo immediately used to his advantage, hitting a layup on one possession, then driving on a floater that left Davis open for the tip-in and-one. This sequence brought the Pelicans up by 12 again, ready to withstand another Blazers run.
The game was far from clean, and if Gentry deserves credit for building the lead, he deserves some blame for almost losing it as well. The team was gassed towards the end, which speaks to minutes management (despite the adjustments being logical ones). Gentry drew two plays in the fourth quarter out of timeouts, and while one resulted in an easy bucket, the other was a jumbled mess that ended in a turnover. The Blazers are surely going to shoot better in Game 2, and the Pelicans will need to be prepared for an extra motivated Portland team tonight.
But for a much-maligned coach, Saturday night was an important game. The Pelicans needed a lot of help to get Anthony Davis’s first playoff win. Much of it came from Holiday, Rondo, and Davis himself. But we can’t forget about Gentry, who deserves credit as well.