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Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry on matchup with Warriors, Anthony Davis and playing without Boogie

Gentry will try to beat the team with which he won an NBA championship as an assistant coach

Three years ago, Alvin Gentry won an NBA championship as a member of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff under Steve Kerr. Now, the New Orleans Pelicans head coach is working on a game plan to try to upset his former employer.

Gentry, NBA All-Star Anthony Davis and the well-rested Pelicans on Tuesday night learned that they were set for a second-round matchup against the reigning champion Warriors. Gentry described it as “a great challenge.”

“I kid with Steve. I say, ‘You guys had a terrible year, you only won 57 games,’ ” Gentry said. “I think when you’re in that area right there, the job that Steve has done there has been amazing when you can say, ‘Hey, we won 57 games and it’s been the worst year that I’ve had after I’ve had the coach in there for four years.’ I’m happy for Steve, and I think it’s a tremendous challenge when you go and play the world champs. They’ve been there.

“There are so many things that are going to be new to our guys in this series that won’t be new to them. But I think our guys have a hunger and they see an opportunity here, and I think we’ll play at our highest level and compete like crazy, and then whatever happens from that we’re willing to accept. I just say we’ve just got to be able to compete to the point where we give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Gentry talked to The Undefeated about Davis channeling his inner Russell Westbrook, life without injured All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors All-Star guard Stephen Curry’s injury, Rajon Rondo’s success under him, the NBA excitement in New Orleans, Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, the state of African-American coaches in the NBA and more.

New Orleans is in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008. What has the excitement been like in the city?

Well, it’s exciting because you know a lot about this town, obviously. And you know they love their sports teams. It’s been a football town for so long because of the Saints, and we’re getting a lot of play. The last two crowds we’ve had for our two home games have been unbelievable. When you walk around the town now, there’s so many people that are locked in and so invested in our team. It’s fun being around here.

Anything around town that’s happened or somebody’s said to you since ending the first-round series that stands out?

One guy told me he used to boo me all the time and he doesn’t boo me anymore, so I guess that’s a win for me. I’m not really sure, but I think that’s a win.

What do you guys do with all of this time off? What’s the good and the bad of it?

The good is that, obviously, this time of the year everyone has bumps and bruises and little things that you just need a few days off to let them totally heal. And so, for guys like A.D. [Davis] and Jrue [Holiday] and you know all the guys that play major, major minutes, it’s been kind of a good time off.

Obviously, we were playing at such a high level that we would have preferred to keep playing because we were in a really good place. But in the end we’ll get it back and play extremely hard and compete at a high level. We’re just going to be a little more rested and a little healthier.

Are you surprised about the Pelicans’ success after losing Cousins to a torn Achilles tendon on Jan. 26, and what was that day like?

Devastating, and more so for DeMarcus than anything because I think when he came here and we put this team together, his goal was, ‘Man, we got to make the playoffs. We have to make the playoffs this year.’ And he was playing such great basketball. I think it was really unfortunate for him that he would get hurt — and really the biggest win that we had the whole year, you know, against Houston — and I felt bad for him.

But then I think all the guys went through a grieving period, really, where we kind of felt a little bit sorry for ourselves and we lost four in a row. Then A.D. came in and said, ‘You know what. We’ve got to get to the playoffs, and if we are going to get to the playoffs I’ve got to beat Russell Westbrook.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I’m all for that.’ Then the pace that he played and the level that he played after that was just so amazing. I mean it was as MVP as you can get with the success we had.

What do you think about how Davis’ play this season?

He’s had an MVP-type season. James Harden is the MVP of the league. I think when your team has done what his team has done and when he put up the numbers that he’s put up, I think it’s got to be James, but you could make a strong argument for LeBron James. And I think if we had gotten to the 50-55 range as far as wins, I think A.D. would fit right into the conversation because the year that he has had and what he has done since Cousins going down has just been unbelievable, as far as helping us stay in a position to win. We ended up being the sixth seed but we were one game behind the third seed that we ended up playing.

How is Cousins doing?

He’s been good. He was here last week, and it’s been a tough part of his travel. But now all of a sudden he is traveling. But he was here last week. Our guys love having him here; he loves being here. The first game of the playoffs the whole crowd was going, ‘Boogie. Boogie. Boogie,’ which I think he really appreciated.

After Cousins got hurt, what did the addition of Nikola Mirotic do for the Pelicans?

He came in and we thought it was good and would help us. And it did some. But I think he spent so much time trying to fit in that I thought it was great that it was Rondo and it was A.D. that went to him and said, ‘Man, stop trying to fit in. Just play. We got you here because you can play.’ That and shaving his beard, by the way. And his game just really took off and I think our guys love having him on the team, and there is a toughness about him that I don’t think people understand.

What has been the key for you and Rondo getting along so great and working well together?

You know what I’ve found — and this is my 13th year in the NBA, and you know you find out things about players — I’ve found out that most of the players in this league, if you’re upfront and honest with them they are very coachable. I don’t think that any of these guys like the BS, and so if you’re gonna do that I think you’re losing them right away.

And with Rondo, I just simply brought him in and said, ‘OK, this is the deal: I love you as a player, I think you’re a great leader, I’m going to give you every opportunity to do that. There are certain boundaries that I’ve got to set and we’ll get along great.’ And I think the thing that sold him, I said, ‘Sometimes I’ll call a play and you’ll see something on the court and you’ll call a play.’ I said, ‘If you call a play and I’ve called a play, your play will always supersede mine unless it’s the last two minutes of the game.’ And I think that he embraced that and he is such a student of the game. He gets every practice, every game on his computer and he watches them all. Not just watches, I think he studies it. So, to me, I love having him. It’s like having an extension of yourself out on the floor, and it has been really, really good for us.”

Do you see Rondo coaching in the NBA one day?

He is going to be a great coach. I think he’ll be a hell of a head coach in this league. I don’t have any doubt about that one.

What’s been the key to Jrue Holiday’s play? He seems like he’s playing on an All-Star level right now.

Well, I think he’s in a really good place. Obviously, everyone knows about his family situation and his wife [Lauren, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor during her pregnancy in 2016]. Everybody’s real healthy. His daughter is real healthy. And I just think he is in a good place. I always thought that he was a great player. I didn’t realize how good he really was until I got here, and so he is having as good of a year as anybody.

And I’ll say this again, if there’s a better two-way player in this league not named LeBron or Kawhi Leonard, I’d like to see them because I don’t think there’s anybody that is asked to do what we ask you to do defensively and still want him to get 20 points a game, so he is having a fantastic year. I’ll be really, really disappointed if he’s not on the first-team All-Defensive team.

Looking back, how would you describe your coaching career and where you are now?

I have been lucky as heck. I’m coming into this league from Kansas, assistant coach in San Antonio, and I’m with Larry Brown, and to be honest with you my goal was to ‘Hey, I’ll be in the NBA for a few years and then I’ll go back to college because that’s kind of where I want to be.’ And then I just fell in love with everything in this league being just basketball. You can train your players as much as you want and you can work them out, you can try to get them better. And I just really liked it, and I just got so fortunate.

I have been fortunate enough to be a head coach with five teams in this league, and that’s a great, great deal for a little boy from Shelby, North Carolina. It wasn’t like I was a great player by any stretch of the imagination, good enough to get a scholarship. But always loved the game, tried to study the game and wanted to be a head coach but didn’t have any inclination that I could be a head coach in the NBA.

What made you get into coaching?

I loved the game and I wanted to stay involved in it, and I knew I wouldn’t be good enough to be a player in the NBA. But I wanted to be involved on some level as a coach in basketball, in college, the NBA or whatever. I have some great mentors. Larry Brown would probably be the guy that did the most for my coaching career. He hired me in Kansas. He hired me in San Antonio.

Doug Collins has been very instrumental. Gregg Popovich, he hired me and then I got a head coaching job before I really went back and worked for him extensively. But we were at Kansas together because he took a sabbatical from his college job and came and spent the year with us the year we won the national championship, so I have been around him. There are just so many other guys. Mike D’Antoni has been such a great influence for me. So I can keep naming guy after guy, but I would say that if you are talking about three guys that influence me the most it would probably be Larry Brown, Doug Collins and Mike D’Antoni.

What do you think about the state of black coaches in the NBA. Obviously, several got fired and perhaps there could be more on the horizon. But are you hoping to see more and are you surprised by the number right now?

You would always like to see more. I think that the guys that are in here are very good coaches. I would be very much surprised if [Toronto Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey didn’t get a bunch of votes for Coach of the Year when you see what he has done with the team in Toronto and how it is. There are a lot of good, solid guys in this league and good, solid coaches.

For [Cleveland Cavaliers head coach] Tyronn Lue to step in and win the championship the way he did and to manage that team. I think it’s not easy managing a team with LeBron James on it because he is such a powerful guy, and you try to coach it to the point where you can get him going but you also don’t want to overuse him. It’s hard not to overuse him since the guy is such a great player. To do what he is doing his 15th year in the league is unheard of.

There are a lot of black coaches in this league, and there’s a lot of other guys who are very deserving. There are some other assistant coaches here that have done a great job and that did a great job when they were coaching. Mike Woodson was a very good coach and did a very good job and was a playoff guy year after year. There’s a lot of people and there’s a lot of qualified guys, and there’s some young good qualified guys too.

Were there any black coaches who were your inspiration?

Well I think there were a lot of guys. If you go back, I don’t think there is any young black coach or anybody that would not say that [former Temple University head coach] John Chaney had some effect on their game. I didn’t know him well, but obviously you followed him and the discipline that he had and the way he ran his program. Everybody could take note from that, and not just the black coaches but white coaches and everyone, because I just thought that the way he ran his program and the way he conducted himself was really, really great.

Where’s your 2015 NBA championship ring?

It’s at home in a safe. I’ve had it on one time. I literally had it on one time, and that’s the night we got it.

How is your relationship with your old Warriors co-workers?

I have a great relationship with those guys. I’m excited about the opportunity to be able to play them in a series, obviously, with them being world champs. It gives our guys here an opportunity to judge the ladder we’ve got to climb to get there. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got a great working relationship with Steve.

[Assistant coach] Ron Adams I think is a really, really underrated coach. What he has done defensively there, and then you just look at the other guys that are there and they’re just real solid and really good. It’s a great staff that has great chemistry, and I think you can see it.

Was it hard for you to leave the Warriors job to take a head coach gig with the Pelicans?

Very difficult, very difficult, because I thought it was just a situation where we were going to be good for a lot of years. I also felt like I wanted to be a head coach again in the league and if the right opportunity came about, and I thought this was a great opportunity. And I still think we would have been fine the first year here if we hadn’t had so many injuries and so many things hadn’t happened.

The second year the same situation, all of a sudden there’s things that come about and situations that happen that we really didn’t have any control over from an injury standpoint. Then this year, obviously the DeMarcus injury is big, we didn’t get Solomon Hill back until late, but the core of our team was pretty much there. DeMarcus played I think it was 48 games or whatever. So we had that figured out, I think, and then when he went down we just had to reboot really, and our guys did it with open arms and a competitive spirit, and that’s why we’ve been successful so far.

What do you think about A.D. and Warriors All-Star forward Kevin Durant guarding each other, that matchup?

Everybody on our team will guard Durant because he’s that kind of player. It’s a good situation. You’re talking about two of the top five players in the league. I think both of them are real competitive. Durant, terrific scorer, shoots the ball well, can put it down and take it to the basket.

A.D. has really extended his game in the three years I’ve been here, shooting the ball from the perimeter exceptionally well. But he has gotten much stronger than he did when he first arrived here. That battle will be good, and then you just look at it. I think some kind of way you’ve got to take away some of this great shooting that they have.

What do you think about Stephen Curry’s knee injury situation that kept him sidelined in the first round?

I don’t know a lot about it. I know Steph. If there is any way he can play he will play, and I kind of laughed at the people that say, ‘Well, he is going to be a little bit rusty.’ I want to tell them, just remember now, the last time he sat out seven games I think he came back and had 39 in the next game. So the rust doesn’t settle very good on Steph.

The Pelicans picked up your contract extension for next season, but I’m sure you’d love to be there much longer than that?

Yeah, I love this city. I think anybody who has ever been here loves this city. I love the team that we’ve got here. The big thing for me is that I think Mrs. Benson has shown that not only is the team going to be here but that she wants to be an integral part of it. She was at every practice we had in Portland, she was at every game we had in Portland, she was there after the game in Portland and she would want us to know that she’s fully invested in this thing.

And because of that I would love to be here and I would love to try to win a championship here. I think that is everyone’s goal, obviously, when they start. … This city right here is due for a celebration. I can’t imagine how it would be if we were able to pull that off.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.