“So,” Monty Williams was asked after Wednesday’s playoff-clinching victory against San Antonio, “is this the biggest victory of your career?”
“Could be,” the Pelicans coach answered. “Just because of the circumstances.”
And that, folks, is about as much of a “me” moment as you’re going to get from the man.
Not that he’s especially humble or self-depreciating.
It’s just that Williams is always quick to point out that it’s all about the players and that his job is to put them in the best position to win — along with giving them the best opportunity to maximize the financial rewards being a professional basketball player can bring.
When you’ve been there — managing to last nine years in the NBA despite averaging only 6.3 points-per-game, you have an appreciation of such things.
“Monty’s the perfect coach for these guys,” said P.J. Carlesimo, himself a former college and pro head coach, now with ESPN Radio, who was in New Orleans doing to the broadcast of the Spurs game. “He understands what they’re going though and he understands exactly what it takes to win.
“Look at how patient he and his staff have been in terms of bringing his guys along.”
And fortunately for Williams and general manager Dell Demps, Pelicans owner Tom Benson and Executive Vice-President for Basketball Operations Mickey Loomis are patient as well.
While reports that Williams and Demps were in essence told the team was expected to make the playoffs are reasonably accurate despite denials from those invoved, it definitely didn’t come down to the win-or-stay-home showdown with the Spurs also meaning win or get fired.
To be sure, coming up short with so much on the line would have been disappointing. But judging a team’s improvement by one game against the defending league champion who themselves were going all out to win despite the obvious affection Spurs Coach Greg Popovich has for Williams (just watch their hug after the game) is absurd. But then again, maybe Williams should be judged by Wednesday’s victory.
After talking all season about not getting too far up or too far down and taking one game at a time, this time he stressed the importance of the situation and also the necessity to come out with extra intensity.
Which is exactly what the Pels did — at one point in the first half going on a 21-1 run and at another leading by as many as 23.
That extra oomph proved vital after the Spurs rallied to outscore the Pels 56-45 in the second half. But they could never quite catch up.
“The Pelicans were on fire,” Popovich said. “They were committed, they played hard and it showed.”
That’s a great testament to the coaching of a team that was 20-21 at the season’s midpoint and had Williams saying, “I have to make evaluations on what I’m doing and how that’s not giving us a chance to be consistent.”
Whatever changes Williams made, the team responded, winning four straight to set up the dogfight with Oklahoma City for the last playoff berth which went down to the final seconds of the final game.
On the flip side, one game does not a championship level coach make.
Williams certainly has the affection and trust of his players. His development of Anthony Davis is a model for anyone else lucky enough to have a superstar on his roster.
Still, his offense has been criticized for having a distinct identity and those puzzling losses against bad teams this year almost made Wednesday’s game irrelevant.
Coaching in the NBA isn’t easy. The players don’t always listen, managing the contracts takes a PhD and just one injury can be devastating. Example: Kevin Durant.
No matter for now. For the Pels, it’s on to the playoffs.
Williams has had his team here before. In 2011, the then-Hornets lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in Williams’ rookie year as a head coach. Then came the Chris Paul trade and the stripping down of the franchise which only Williams and Demps survived.
This time, according to the oddsmakers and pundits such as Charles Barkley (“Golden State is going to beat the Pelicans, but they’ve got some issues, like not having anybody who can guard Anthony Davis,” he said Thursday), the series against the Warriors will last no more than five games.
But it will be a demonstration of how ready the Pels – and Williams — are ready to take the step towards being a championship contender.
“One thing I’ve heard going around the country is that it’s clear cut the Pelicans have arrived,” Carlesimo said. “The job they did this year dealing with injuries and all of the issues they had playing in their division (It’s the first time in league history all five teams from a division have finished above .500) have impressed everybody.
“Their future couldn’t be better.”
Having that come true would be Williams’ dream.
But no matter what happens, he will be appreciative of where he is.
“I can’t thank God enough for the opportunity to coach and be in situations and moments like this,” he said Wednesday. “I’m a very blessed man.”