New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry doesn’t believe in coasting into the playoffs.
And considering the stakes of Game 82, rest assured he wasn’t worried about it. Playing for an opportunity to avoid the red-hot Houston Rockets in the first round the NBA playoffs provided plenty of incentive.
And it resulted in a 122-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, vaulting New Orleans past San Antonio in the Western Conference standings and into a playoff matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers starting this weekend.
The New Orleans Pelicans have crossed another item off their to-do list: Avoid the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the first roun…
New Orleans closed out its 48-34 record in style, winning their final five games to finish with the third best record in franchise history and its most wins since the 2008-09 campaign.
It’s the Pelicans’ first postseason appearance since they were swept out of the 2015 playoffs by Golden State. And this time, the Pelicans expect a significantly longer stay, and winning on Wednesday night provided a prominent boost to their cause.
While Pelicans players declined to flatly state they preferred playing Portland, the Blazers were the only team amongst the West’s top four who didn’t take the season series from New Orleans (they split 2-2). Not to mention Houston’s NBA-best 66-16 record and likely Most Valuable Player James Harden were waiting on deck if the Spurs left New Orleans as winners.
“We don’t plan to stop here,” Anthony Davis said. “We want to get in and make some noise.”
A peek around the Smoothie King Center could have fooled people into thinking the playoffs were already underway. A hostile, raucous home crowd gained steam behind an up-tempo, relentless Pelicans attack that took an early lead and never let it slip away.
“We wanted to do this for the fans,” Davis said. “They came out and supported us and they were here all seasons through the ups and downs and we wanted to make sure we came out and finished strong for them.”
It a complete effort by New Orleans’ starting five, which each scored at least 13 points and finished plus-15, never allowing San Antonio to pull within single digits in the second half.
Nikola Mirtotic’s 17 first-half points and Jrue Holiday’s 12 led the first-half charge while Rajon Rondo revved up the tempo by dishing eight of his 14 assists before intermission.
Even as Anthony Davis struggled by his standards, making just 8-of-18 field goals and 6-of-12 free throws, his teammates did more than enough to carry them to an easy victory.
“It was truly a team win,” coach Alvin Gentry said.
And the throng of Pelicans’ fans displayed their appreciation, standing and cheering as Holiday and Davis left the floor with more than three minutes remaining and cheering their way to the exits as the coronation was complete.
Even Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich series of early timeouts couldn’t slow the Pelicans’ momentum, as they repeatedly raced out on the fast break and attacked San Antonio at the rim.
“We are going to play it just like we would any other game and try to win it,” Gentry said before the game. “We are not playing with any caution or anything like that.”
While it didn’t look like any other game, there was no sign of caution.
The Pelicans ripped off a 21-4 run to close the second quarter, bringing the crowd to its feet and leading to a 61-43 halftime advantage. It served as a microcosm for everything New Orleans has done well the second half of the season, taking advantage of every opportunity to run in transition and quickly built an insurmountable lead.
“We wanted to play fast and they wanted to play slow,” Gentry said. “We thought it was important to dictate the tempo and I thought I did that, especially in the second quarter.”
It was reminiscent of the 2015 season finale, when the Pelicans clinched its most recent playoff bid on the back of a stirring win over the Spurs.
But this time, the Pelicans don’t begin the postseason as an expected speed bump for the NBA’s best team. If Wednesday night was any indication, they could stick around for a while.
“It means a lot, especially for the organization and everything we have been though in the last couple of weeks with (recently deceased owner) Mr. (Tom) Benson,” Davis said. “But for us to get in the playoffs and even with the Saints, it’s been a good year for New Orleans fans and we just want to make noise. It’s not just about getting in the playoffs.”