NEW ORLEANS -- The fear factor remained until the very end for Alvin Gentry.
His memory is as long as Anthony Davis from head to toe, so like everyone else in the Smoothie King Center Friday night, the notion that a 20-point lead late in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors was safe just didn’t compute.
Gentry was caught up in the moment, trying to win a game in this Western Conference semifinal after dropping the first two in Oakland. And he was trying to block out the memory of the Pelicans’ last home game against these Warriors in the playoffs.
He had the perfect seat then, next to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, his top assistant and offensive coordinator, the man in charge of engineering an epic comeback from a 20-point deficit that would lead to a Game 3 win in that first-round series and an eventual sweep of the Pelicans that helped propel the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green-led Warriors to the NBA title in 2015.
So yeah, it was on his mind, even if everyone else in the building tried to say it wasn’t, that it was ancient history and that it had no impact on this current Pelicans team.
Gentry knew better than that and confessed as much as his team drew blood in this series with an emphatic 119-100 Game 3 win this time around.
“Obviously, it’s going to stick with you,” Gentry said of that pivotal 2015 game that ultimately led to the Pelicans hiring him away from the Warriors. “I was on the Warrior bench then and I thought [the Pelicans] played great game. And because I was on the Warrior bench it made it so scary tonight … I was there when Steph started making threes and then Klay started making threes and before you know it a 20-point lead was nine points and then seven points, and then all of a sudden Steph made a shot out of the corner, which by the way I have a picture of that on my phone that I’ve kept all of these years and now I can erase it off.
“But they're just a scary team, you never feel comfortable. Even when he [Kerr] took his guys out, I was like ‘let’s play two more minutes before we take [our] guys out. Because you are just never comfortable with that team.”
Gentry helped chase the ghost of that 2015 game away for the a franchise, a city and especially his stars on Friday night.
Both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday were on that team that collapsed three years ago. They needed this win more than they realized, more than they cared to acknowledge late Friday night after the building had cleared out and everyone had a chance to process what had just transpired.
The Pelicans beat the Warriors at their own game, employing the “appropriate fear” Gentry joked about with the media afterwards.
It was all there, starting with relentless defense and sweet shooting; 14-for-31 from beyond the 3-point line.
It continued with the sudden bursts of energy from all directions; Solomon Hill knocking down three deep 3-pointers early and reserve guard Ian Clark, crushing his former team for 18 points, including daggers down the stretch.
It was punctuated by Davis and Holiday grinding away like the guys who fueled the Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo breathing as much verbal fire as Green, while also driving the Pelicans with 21 assists, the first player with at least 20 in a playoff game since he did it in himself in 2011 when he was with the Boston Celtics.
The Warriors simply couldn’t keep up. And Curry didn’t the have the same touch or adrenaline he had in his playoff debut in Game 2, when he torched the Pelicans for 28 points in 27 minutes off the bench during his first action after missing nearly six weeks with a knee injury.
“Most of it is attributed to the Pelicans,” Kerr said. “Their defense was great. They were the aggressors. I thought they brought the force, the necessary force to the game on their home floor, and these are the ebbs and flows of a playoff series, especially when you get past the first round. Everybody is really good and that’s a team that just swept Portland in the first round and on their home floor down 2-0, this is kind of what you expect.”
Gentry has unleashed all that.
When the Pelicans lost All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles injury in late January, the framework for this team had to be altered completely.
The Pelicans had to lean on Davis to dominate the way he did Friday night (33 points on 15-for-27 shooting, 18 rebounds, four steals and three assists). Holiday (21 points, seven rebounds, five assists) had to be set free to resume the All-Star ways he showed earlier in his career.
And Rondo needed the keys to the car and the freedom to guide the Pelicans’ young stars to the edge the way he has throughout this postseason, complete with at least two more face-to-face skirmishes with Green Friday night.
“That’s the way he plays, he talks a lot of …” Rondo said after being informed that Green suggested he was trying to bait him into a confrontation.
That's the way he plays, he talks a lot of ...
Rondo, who joined Magic Johnson and John Stockton as the only players in NBA history with multiple 20-assist games in the postseason, understands the process a team must go through to reach that next level.
He was a young point guard in Boston when he learned it from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers during the Celtics’ 2008 title run and the years they spent as a contender after that.
And he knows success at this stage is more about the Pelicans and what they do than it is about any beef, real or perceived, between he and Green.
“It definitely is, but it starts with defense,”he said.“We were able to get some stops, defensively. It’s hard to run and keep pace when you’re taking it by the net every time which we did in game one so we cleaned up a little bit better in game two and three and look forward to making adjustments for game four.”
Without Gentry understanding and trusting that same process, and facilitating the perfect environment for all of his players, especially his three biggest stars, this Pelicans team could have easily fallen out of the playoff mix in a wild Western Conference.
That race that went down to the final night of the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets and affected the seeding for every team after the No. 1 Houston Rockets and No. 2 Warriors.
Gentry had to empower Rondo to infuse the right kind of bite in both Holiday and Davis, whose voice grows louder with each game -- he didn’t hesitate to make a statement in a second half huddle Friday night, barking to his teammates that “we are not going to lose this game.”
“That was the message,”he said.“We can’t lose this game. It’s always tough to come back from 0-3. Our mindset is to go out there, play, and do what we’re supposed to do from all the game planning. Whatever results happen, happen. We followed the game plan to a T tonight.”
And now the real fun begins. The atmosphere will be electric for Sunday afternoon’s Game 4. The expectations will have changed dramatically for the Pelicans in just a few hours.
Can they do it again? Will they exhibit the same appropriate fear against a championship Warriors team that will be smarting from a Friday night dose of their own medicine?
Gentry, the architect of this perfectly brewing storm, is counting on it.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.