NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Pelicans’ penchant for pushing the pace looks more and more like a quixotic mission to out-Warrior the Warriors.
That’s been the dilemma for Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry as New Orleans has slid into a 3-1 hole in its Western Conference semifinal playoff series against defending champion Golden State.
Although there’d be logic to slowing the game down to limit shooting opportunities for Golden State’s prolific perimeter players, Gentry never saw that option as practical enough to pull off in the playoffs.
“We’re going to play at a fast pace,” Gentry says. “I know some would say, `You’re kind of playing into Golden State’s hands. But this is the way we’ve played the whole season, so we’re not going to all of a sudden try to adjust and do something completely different, because the success we’ve had has been based on playing at a fast pace and being a team that has played the fastest pace in the league.
“We don’t have the ability to all of a sudden change that and become a walk-it-up-the-court team,” Gentry continued. “We’re just going to continue to attack.”
The Pelicans found a measure of vindication in Game 3, when the Warriors had an off night shooting and New Orleans won by 19 points. But in Game 4 on Sunday, the Warriors ramped up their defensive intensity, shot better and beat New Orleans by 20-plus points for the second time in the series. Now Golden State can close out the series at home in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Even when the Pelicans’ had DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins playing alongside fellow All-Star big man Anthony Davis in a lineup that revolved around that imposing front-court tandem, New Orleans played relatively fast. They averaged 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes, which ranked sixth in the NBA.
After Cousins went out for the season with a left Achilles tear in late January, the Pelicans picked up the pace even more. During their final 34 games, they averaged 104.5 possessions per 48 minutes – a faster pace of play than any other team during that span.
If Cousins remained healthy, slowing the pace somewhat, and punishing the smaller lineups the Warriors use to greatest effect, would be a more realistic option for New Orleans. But Cousins is not expected back on the court until after next season begins. And whether he’s still with the Pelicans remains to be seen; New Orleans wants him back, but he’ll be a free agent this summer.
The Pelicans’ current lineup features relatively young, versatile players who move well and can score from various spots on the floor, such as Davis, guard Jrue Holiday and forward Nikola Mirotic. They also have a point guard in Rajon Rondo who thrives when pushing the pace and quickly identifying favorable matchups in transition, or early in possessions.
“After we lost Boogie, we became the No. 1 team in pace and we’re going to continue to be that same team,” Pelicans veteran small forward Solomon Hill said. “For us to change with all the chips on the table would basically be defeating the purpose. If we’re good at something, we’re going to stay with it and if anything, we’re going to try to perfect it.
“If we had Boogie out there, it would be different. We’d slow it down and execute some stuff,” Hill added. “But we’re not going to change for anybody. The way we feel like we can compete at the highest level is to continue to be who we are.”
Gentry has always known what he’s up against in this round of the playoffs. He was a lead assistant coach for Golden State’s 2015 championship team before taking the top job in New Orleans.
During the 2017-18 regular season, the Warriors ranked fifth in pace, averaging 101.9 possessions per 48 minutes, so an up-tempo game was going to take the defending champs out of their comfort zone.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who was Gentry’s boss back in 2015, doesn’t see the Pelicans’ refusal to slow the pace as stubborn. Kerr sees Gentry doing the best he can with the personnel he has.
“You’ve got to do what’s best for your team. You can’t go against your team’s character and change strategy in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “You’ve got to be who you are.”