Alvin Gentry will tell you that the Pelicans’ regular season lasted only 75 games. Or at least, that’s what he told his team with seven games left in the season. New Orleans had just lost back-to-back games to Houston and Portland and was only one and a half games from falling out of the playoffs altogether.
“We said, ‘This is our playoff, we’ve been in the playoffs,’” Gentry said a few hours before the Pelicans beat the Clippers 113–100 on Monday and clinched a playoff spot. “Man, it’s been the playoffs for the past three weeks,” Emeka Okafor quipped. “He said it, but we all knew it. We felt it,” added E’Twaun Moore. The Pelicans were unable to avoid pressure all year long. They were on the ropes from the get-go, one of the many West teams bouncing up and down the standings. It was hard to ignore their most blatant setback.
“A lot of people counted us out, man,” Ian Clark said. “Especially when [DeMarcus] Cousins went down.”
The Achilles injury that sidelined Boogie in late January changed the dynamic of the Pelicans’ season. But for Gentry and Co., the goals remained the same: to remain healthy enough to play well and to get into the playoffs. And they did.
Postgame Monday, after the latter goal had been accomplished, the lack of health manifested itself in the form of a 6-foot-11 center wearing a periwinkle Balenciaga denim button-up and walking with a bit of a limp. DeMarcus Cousins sauntered by the postgame presser and jokingly interrupted. “Better give me some love too!” he yelled at Gentry.
Gentry just laughed. He could finally afford a chuckle. New Orleans has maintained a top-10 offense and a top-15 defense, and is 20–13 since Boogie went down, including a 10-game winning streak that likely salvaged its playoff spot. The Pelicans are back in the postseason for the first time since 2015, and with one game remaining, they have an outside shot at home-court advantage in the first round. And this has all been accomplished without Cousins on the court since late January.
It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Nikola Mirotic made one mistake when he decided to shave his infamous beard.
“He didn’t tell the group chat,” DeAndre Liggins said.
The morning of the Pelicans’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies last Wednesday, Mirotic woke up and decided to shave his patented, James Harden–like beard. When he showed up to shootaround, his teammates were taken aback when they looked at their forward’s newly exposed face.
“He just came in looking like a shaved bird,” Liggins said. “Everybody was shocked.”
“We thought it was somebody else,” Clark said.
When he first saw the clean-shaven Mirotic, Gentry told him he looked like an 18-year-old; the coach said Monday he’s been kidding the forward that the shave is the reason he’s been getting calls in games. Mirotic says he’s taken the ribbing as a compliment. Players joked they had no idea the team had added a new 10-day contract player. Mirotic’s decision made Okafor think of The Simpsons.
“Are you a big Simpsons fan?” he asked me, forcing me to tell him, painfully, that I am not. “Ah, you might not get it. Well, I equate it to the few episodes when Homer shaves his beard, and he just looks completely different … I didn’t recognize [Mirotic], but hey, whatever works.”
Somehow, the decision to shave has been working. In his past seven games, Mirotic has shot 43 percent from 3; in his past four, which have been beardless, he’s scored 25, 31, 28, and 24 points. It’s been his best stretch as a Pelican at the most opportune time for the team that traded for him from Chicago. “I wasn’t playing well. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t find myself, and I couldn’t get the rhythm of my shot,” Mirotic said in Spanish. “So, the [shaving] was a little superstitious too.”
If he’s hitting his shots, Mirotic is the perfect player for the Pelicans’ decision to double down hard on a speed-and-space system. (Since Cousins exited with the Achilles injury, no team has played at a faster pace than the Pelicans, who had played the sixth-fastest up to that point.) Mirotic’s combination of size, length, and outside shooting has opened up the floor for Anthony Davis. And with Rajon Rondo showing flashes of brilliance, and surprising defensive stalwart Jrue Holiday handling the ball, the Pelicans have been able to utilize a more fluid style than they used before Cousins’s injury.
“[They] created matchup problems for a lot of the teams. So, when [Cousins] went out, and all of a sudden, we had to change how we played altogether,” Gentry said. “What we’ve been able to do is create space, and we like to play that way simply because it puts AD in a situation where he’s in space and the double-teams can’t come quite as quick. It also gives us an opportunity to space out the floor for shooters, to drive it and kick it to shooters. We became much more of a stretch team again.”
Another number on Gentry’s mind is 30. That’s how many assists, he says, the Pelicans need to accrue in order to have a successful game. The numbers back Gentry’s theory up. New Orleans is 19–6 when racking up at least 30 assists in a game. Opting for more ball movement and speed has worked. New Orleans is the third in the league in fast-break points. “When you lose someone like DeMarcus, you gotta find ways to make up for it, so us using our speed was that way,” Moore said.
“We got a lot of guys that can get the rebound and push it, 1 through 5, especially when AD is out there. It helps us not have to set up our offense and puts the defense on their heels,” Clark said. The Pelicans have put an emphasis on fast breaks to catch defenses off guard, and it’s worked; they have the third-most fast-break points per game in the league. But what about the playoffs? When things are supposed to naturally slow down, and the importance on each possession is heightened? “It’ll come down a lot to execution,” Clark said, “but I think we have the best of both worlds; we have an orchestrator in Rondo that knows what he’s doing so for the slower-pace possessions when we need to run plays, and like I said, we’ve shown all year that we’re able to run, too.”
Rookie Charles Cooke tries not to be a bother, but he just can’t help but be curious about Anthony Davis and his abilities. So, he asks the questions that pop into his mind.
How did you get open on that play?
How did you shake that defender?
Typically, Davis answers. Cooke soaks it up.
“I’ve never seen someone of his caliber, it’s incredible,” Cooke says.
The reality is that though the stylistic changes and uptick in pace have helped the Pelicans survive and advance, without Davis, they’d have no legs or arms to carry them to their destination. He’s both entertainment at the highest level, and a sheer necessity for survival. After Cousins went down, Davis stitched together three of the best months of his basketball career. Over the past 30 games, Davis has averaged an MVP-like 30.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and 3.1 blocks per game. That production has Gentry wishing his team had won a few more games, and not for the obvious reason. He’s certain, he repeats more than once, that Davis would have a legitimate shot at the award had the team won even 50 games. “He’s put the whole team on his back.”
It’s not just Gentry, Cooke, and the younger Pels who are constantly in awe of Davis. Okafor, who helped the team survive in the short term after the Boogie injury, is too. “I’ve gained so much respect for him after seeing him up close,” he said. Davis, of course, turns the attention back to the outside, and with good reason. In years prior, his supporting cast has been pitiful. This year, it’s improved enough to where his superstar efforts make a difference. “We know how good of a team we are, and when [Cousins] went down, I think we lost four of five and we started changing the way we played, start playing a little bit faster,” Davis told me. “Guys are running, playing fast-paced offense, that’s really it. Everybody on the team’s picked it up.”
Monday night was the finish line for Davis, who emphatically ended his triumphant stretch with a dunk that encapsulated his monstrous season.
Speed or no speed, pace and space or none, at the end of the day, the Pelicans have a squad that continues to jell, and the guy above flying through the air terrorizing defenses. With or without Cousins, that’s enough to send chills down the backs of any playoff team forced to face them in the first round. But at this point, after snatching a successful season from the jaws of an injury that should have more or less ended it, Gentry and his team aren’t going to be picky about their best matchup or even worried about who they’ll face.
“I don’t care,” Gentry said. “We’ll play the Angels, the L.A. Kings, whoever is there, we’ll play them.”