Alvin Gentry cares about the work-life balance of his staff.
It’s a rare trait for an NBA head coach, but he displayed it after the New Orleans Pelicans’ 119-99 win over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night. When asked about the benefits of his team’s defensive turnaround, holding consecutive opponents to less than 100 points, Gentry pointed to the well-being of assistant coach Darren Erman.
Considering the Pelicans racked up the league’s second-worst defensive efficiency during a recent six-game losing streak, Gentry could sense the rising anxiety in Erman, who is in charge of the Pelicans’ defense. But Gentry was hopeful a pair of stellar defensive outings, and two wins, might have help ease it.
“It’s made Erm settle down just a little bit,” Gentry said. “You can just imagine when we give up 130 how he feels. He thinks 100 is a lot.
“I think our guys have done a good job of getting locked in and we’ve been containing the ball a little bit better. Obviously, we have great rim protection with AD back there. We’ve just been better team-wise as far as pulling in and helping. All-in-all, I think we’ve been better.”
Anthony Davis said the sudden improvement is the confluence of several factors finally hitting at the same time. The Pelicans’ superstar forward is not only growing increasingly healthy after suffering through a sprained elbow that caused him to miss three games, but admitted the team is simply playing harder.
He also pointed to Jrue Holiday’s dogged performances on opposing stars, holding both Zach LaVine and Devin Booker well below their typical production and allowing the rest of the Pelicans’ defense to form around him.
“We are playing for each other and helping each other on defense,” Davis said. “We are getting into the ball and making the other guys beat us and not that star guy. So we have just been talking and been working on defense a lot at practice. We have to make up for the stuff we hadn’t been doing.”
So, will Erman be able to rest now?
“Hopefully,” Davis said. “He never sleeps, really. But, I think he’ll be able to calm down a bit.”
Erman wasn’t alone in feeling relief. The brief two-game homestand served as an important backstop and benchmark in the early portion of this Pelicans season.
While the six-game losing streak meandered through some of the toughest environments in the Western Conference, the Pelicans entered both the Chicago and Phoenix games as sizable favorites on their own home floor. However, in recent years, New Orleans hasn’t routinely taken advantage of those situations.
Last season alone, the Pelicans lost to six of the nine worst teams in the NBA, five of them inside the Smoothie King Center. So, gaining lopsided wins over the lowly Bulls and Suns is a more important step for New Orleans than most playoff contenders.
“For sure,” Davis said. “To just know the good teams are supposed to beat teams like this, and we consider ourselves one of the good teams. Then, just knowing we had to get back in the win column after dropping six in a row, we kind of took that personal. And coming home, we know we had to pick up home court.”
Now, the Pelicans’ challenge will reset again.
They’ll take to the road for a matchup against one of the NBA’s elite on Monday night, facing the 12-1 Toronto Raptors at ScotiaBank Arena. Then they’ll travel to Minnesota, to play the re-engineered Timberwolves, who traded embattled All-Star Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia.
So, the trip will be more difficult than the homestand.
But, at least the Pelicans will enter it with the confidence gained by socking wins into the standings and knowing that even if the difficult road games go astray, they’ve taken care of the ones they should have.
And, perhaps, gotten their defensive assistant a few hours of sleep in the process.
“It was real big for us,” Davis said of the two home wins. “You know you can’t get too far down in the West or it’s going to be trouble trying to get back up in the standings. So, for us to come back and take care of home court, it was big time for us.
“It gives us a little confidence going into two tough games. You know they are the No. 1 team in the East, so it’s going to be another big road trip for us. We’ve got to come out with both of them.”