On a night when New Orleans said goodbye to an NBA superstar, Alvin Gentry said hello to another.
An hour before his Pelicans beat the Lakers 110-102 on Friday in Los Angeles legend Kobe Bryant’s final game at the Smoothie King Center, Gentry walked into the New Orleans locker room and jokingly introduced himself to Anthony Davis.
The two shook hands like strangers, Gentry explaining that he coaches the team and the injured franchise player responding, “I’m Anthony Davis. I just signed on a 10-day (contract), but I’m hurt.”
The two shared a laugh as Gentry told Davis, “Be prepared to play a lot of minutes if you’re on a 10-day.”
That’s life these days for the Pelicans, who are without nine key players — seven are out for the season, and Gentry said before Friday’s game that “chances are” neither forward Ryan Anderson nor guard Norris Cole will return in the final three games — but are setting an example down the stretch with a makeshift roster.
“We got to emphasize the fact that it doesn’t matter if you’re a star player or not,” Gentry said after the game. “Sharing the basketball is the most important thing that we could do. Playing and competing like these guys have done is the most important thing that we can do. There’s just a lot of things that I think we can take from this group that we have.”
Gentry is talking about next season, when he expects to be back for a second go-round with the Pelicans, despite the team’s disappointing 30-49 record in his debut. His hope is that New Orleans will carry over the way it’s played without its stars into next season when they return.
On Friday, a night that was all about Bryant, the Pelicans’ role players stole the show, playing the style of basketball Gentry envisioned when he took the job.
Alexis Ajinca — the chief beneficiary of ball movement that generated 29 assists — finished with career highs in points (28) and rebounds (15), leading five Pelicans in double-digit scoring.
Toney Douglas had 20 points, six rebounds and four assists; Dante Cunningham scored 19 points, Luke Babbitt 15 and Jordan Hamilton 12. Point guard Tim Frazier came off the bench to score seven points and dish out 12 assists.
The crowd, listed at 18,607, had come to see Bryant, and he put on an early show for the fans, many of them sporting his Lakers jersey. But the 20-year veteran, who will retire at season’s end next week, went scoreless after a 14-point first quarter, and his admirers served to fire up the less-heralded Pelicans.
“When it’s a home game and you see the whole stadium is gold and purple, it’s kind of annoying,” Ajinca said. “It gets you going, and you want to prove this is still our home. We did that tonight.”
They did it with an energy that helped New Orleans control the game after the first quarter when “Kobe was being Kobe for a while,” Gentry said. He made 4 of 11 shots in the quarter, but three of those were 3-pointers, and Los Angeles led 27-24 after one.
But Bryant missed the only four shots he took the rest of the game, and the Pelicans took command, outscoring the Lakers 33-19 in the second quarter and 30-21 in the third.
By the time Bryant reentered the game with 7:20 to play in the fourth — after chants of “We want Kobe!” and “Kobe! Kobe!” from the crowd — the Lakers trailed 98-82. And by the time Los Angeles cut what had been a 25-point lead to eight —mostly behind 32 points from D’Angelo Russell and 26 from Jordan Clarkson — there were 23.3 seconds to play, and Bryant had long since been on the bench.
The Pelicans weren’t the attraction Friday, but even without star power, they powered through, snapping a two-game winning streak to win for the third time in five games despite a roster decimated by injury.
“We’re all NBA players. We’re all basketball players,” Frazier said. “We might not be All-Stars or be top players or Kobe Bryant, but we’re going to go out there and compete. That’s one thing you can do as a person, regardless of your skill set. You go out there and you give it your all.”