NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe that tap on the tuchus left a lasting impression.
In Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference finals, at the height of his tenure as Phoenix Suns head coach, Alvin Gentry watched from feet away as Kobe Bryant took one dribble inside the 3-point arc, unsuccessfully up-faked, then rose up to hoist an impossible fadeaway with Grant Hill blotting him out. As the ball swished through the net, effectively ending the Suns' season, Bryant gave Gentry a firm pat on the rear and took off in the most morose airplane the other way.
Two weeks before, Gentry, despite his strong roots in the Suns' unselfish style, called Bryant the best closer ever.
Gentry's own superstar, Anthony Davis, clearly has a long way to go before reaching such rarefied air. But with the New Orleans Pelicans' playoff odds near the bottom of the league and the injury list growing by the day, Gentry has started to turn an eye toward the future, which includes developing Davis in late-game situations.
"At the end of the game, I think we need to get the ball to Anthony more," Gentry said recently. "We need to start training him to be the guy down the stretch. If you've got a great player, that's what you do."
Davis has been relatively successful at it this season when they do get it to him. According to NBA.com/Stats, the 22-year-old is averaging 3.0 points in the clutch (final five minutes, score within five points; minimum two games), good for 18th-best in the league and one spot behind Damian Lillard, the once and future prince of bucket-getting. And he stays in that above-average range under the Pu Pu platter of "clutch" situations: 2.1 points in a four-point game with three minutes to play (16th-best), 2.3 points in a three-point game with three minutes left (ninth), 1.6 points in a one-point game with three minutes to play (eighth), and so on.
"He is gonna be our closer. And that doesn't necessarily mean making the shot. ... He's gonna be the guy more times than not that we're gonna depend on to make the play at the end of the game."Alvin Gentry
But defenses are starting to key in on Davis with double teams and extra help defenders, especially in light of his 59-point, 20-rebound career night against Detroit and with the Pelicans now scraping the bottom with their floor-spacers thanks to their rash of injuries. Three of the losses in a recent four-game skid put a spotlight squarely on the offensive struggles down the stretch. And that's where Gentry's definition of being a "closer" takes a more modern spin.
"He is gonna be our closer. And that doesn't necessarily mean making the shot," Gentry said. "But I think he's gonna be the guy more times than not that we're gonna depend on to make the play at the end of the game. That means maybe finding the open guy, or when a double team comes being able to swing the basketball and put guys in the position where they can make the shot.
"I think we're gonna have to start trying to go through him -- and it may be a screen-and-roll situation, where he screens and rolls to the basket. But we've got to have him involved in a lot of the plays at the end of the game."
That's the next frontier for the young superstar. Davis has successfully added a healthy dose of 3-pointers into his diet, with the fourth-year veteran now bombing it from deep 1.7 times a game at a respectable .322 clip. But Davis, once a guard in high school before experiencing a growth spurt that now borders on folk tale, has yet to show he can consistently get others involved. His assist rate has yet to crack double digits, and the 7.6 percent he's dishing out this season ranks sixth-to-last among 71 qualifying power forwards. (Ryan Anderson, for what it's worth, is third-worst.)
This deficiency becomes more evident in the clutch, during which Davis has a minuscule 2.1 assist percentage.
"Of course you want to make your teammates better," Davis said. "Now that teams are starting to throw double teams at me it's becoming a lot easier for me to try to figure out where my teammates are gonna be and try to put them in the right situations to be effective.
"But a lot of teams try to play heads up, but the teams that do [double], that's when those five-, six-, seven-assist game has to come into effect."
Finding a balance between that guy and being The Guy has been an adjustment. In the game following his domination of the Pistons, Davis finished with nine points on nine shots. He's had 29 points or more three times since, but he needed 13 shots to get to 12 points in a loss to the Rockets, and 31 shots to get to 29 in a loss to Utah Saturday.
"I just always try to make the right play," Davis said Monday morning. "Even since I was in high school, I've never been a selfish guy. Yesterday. … Not yesterday. Whatever day we had that game. I shot 31 times. And after I looked at it, I said, ‘That's a lot of shots.'
"But sometimes coach said you're gonna have to shoot that many shots. But I'm always about making the right play, getting my teammates involved. Let them get their share, too. But of course down the stretch, that's when coach wants me to be a little more selfish."
Luckily, Gentry is sending help at him, too. While the roster has cycled through the four starting spots around Davis, who has been in 22 of the Pelicans' league-high 29 first units, Jrue Holiday, the team's second-best player, has come off the bench. After three months as a reserve, Holiday was bumped up to first chair Monday against the Kings. The result: Eight of Holiday's 10 assists (tied for his second-most on the season) went to Davis in a 115-112 come-from-behind win.
Davis mentioned before the game how crucial the pick-and-roll with Holiday was to their late-game success.
"I think to get in that pick-and-roll with me and Jrue, it's tough. And then you can work from there," he said.
Davis played the role of high pick-and-roll screener in four of the eight set offensive possessions the Pelicans had in the final five minutes, with the last one resulting in a Holiday pull-up from 19 feet (with 12.8 seconds left, to Gentry's chagrin) to make it a three-point game.
Individually, Davis finished with four points on 2-for-4 shooting and three rebounds in crunch time.
"We really don't go over it much, because it's the same plays we're going to run throughout the course of the game," Davis said of late-game situations. "You just got to lock in more -- hard cuts, harder screens. That's really it. You don't want to go and practice late-game and end up injuring somebody, because you're trying to set a hard screen or something. ... Except for [Kendrick Perkins].
"Other than that, we just try to lock in more on the offensive end more knowing that we got to get a good look. I think we did that the last three possessions."
It wasn't all precise execution. Holiday turned it over with 1:43 to play before Dante Cunningham took it back seconds later. DeMarcus Cousins needle-pointed a pass from the high post to Darren Collison for a good look at a reverse layup that would have put the Kings up one with 27 seconds to play, but Collison missed, setting the stage for Holiday's icing pull-up.
But it was a step in the right direction.
"All of these games have been coming down to the last three minutes of the game," Davis said. "And this time, the last three minutes we kind of imposed our will. We were kind of the aggressors. That's usually what happens at the end of games: Whoever's the aggressor usually wins.
"We just felt like we wanted to be aggressive, especially [against] a team that's ahead of us [in the standings] and [we're] trying to catch."