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Suns thrash Pelicans, reach new levels on both ends of floor in decisive win

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, yells out to his teammates from the bench during the second half of the Suns' NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — When a team has high expectations, a glimpse of what could be is nice to get early in the season.

The Phoenix Suns provided their fans that sneak peek of their potential Tuesday, thrashing the New Orleans Pelicans on national television 111-86.

In the second quarter, Phoenix played its most complete 12 minutes in quite some time. It started on the defensive end, where the Suns were a half-step off to open the game. The energy was there but the engagement was a smidge disconnected.

When head coach Monty Williams employed a form of zone defense, that seemed to snap everything together. The defense set up the offense, where the ball was flowing beautifully through the 0.5 principles Williams preaches.

“Once we started playing with that kind of force on the defensive end that allowed us to play in 0.5 where didn’t have to call a ton of plays because we were getting stops,” Williams said. “I think it’s a fun way to play but it also is something that we can’t take for granted.”

Devin Booker and Chris Paul had a combined two field goal attempts in the first half, by design for the Pelicans. It did not matter and the Suns led by 22. They rolled from there to lead at one point in the second half by as many as 40.

Phoenix was gang rebounding most of the night, what teams have to do against the Pelicans’ frontcourt of Steven Adams and Zion Williamson. That united, constant energy fueled the team.

“There was a concerted effort to do whatever we could to try and keep those guys off the glass,” Williams said. “Steven — it’s like moving a parked car, getting him out of the paint.”

Williams said they’ve been emphasizing “contest and stay” from the perimeter players, making sure they rebound when they can instead of leaking out. Mikal Bridges had seven rebounds and Booker grabbed six more. The Suns were plus-5 on the offensive glass, with Deandre Ayton snatching five of his own.

“It was a paint game tonight,” Ayton said. “Battle of the paint, doing your work early, communicating, being physical, not letting them bring the game to you. Just being physical off (the) rip, being the aggressor.”

The Suns attempted 17 free throws in the first half after averaging that many free throws per contest through three games.

If Phoenix (3-1) reaches the level it did defensively while the supplementary pieces hit 3s, they are going to be a very tough team to beat. Yes, that even goes without Paul and Booker building maximum cohesion, because they’re already creating so much for teammates off the defensive attention they warrant.

New Orleans’ (2-2) Stan Van Gundy had a clear gameplan of getting the ball out of Paul’s and Booker’s hands. The Suns responded by shooting 19-of-47 (40.4%) from three-point range while drawing fouls and making good passes off aggressive closeouts. That was, again, a credit to the defense establishing a base to build the offense.

“We were making shots with our defense,” Bridges said. “That got us going, especially first half we picked it up in that second quarter, made a run. Once we started getting stops and we play in transition, we’re a tough team to stop.”

Jae Crowder had a team-high 21 points, Cam Johnson added 18 and it was 13 each for Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Payne. He posted those 13 points with two rebounds and seven assists. For the third time in four games, the Suns bench hit the 40-point mark.

Paul was arguably the Suns’ best player despite taking only four shots. He was in maestro mode on both ends, keeping the tempo where it needed to be on offense while doing the communicating you’d expect defensively. Paul produced nine points and nine assists in 23 minutes.

Payne is the guy who has a case to an objection. He has somehow performed even better than he did in the bubble, playing a full offensive and defensive game while running the offense. It’s far beyond a hot shooting streak — he’s turning himself into a legitimate NBA point guard.

That point guard duo through four games now has 60 assists and 10 turnovers, the best part of the team’s offense a week into the season. Payne has been so good that there isn’t a need to stagger Paul and Booker right now, a proposal I would have personally ruled as incomprehensible at any point with a fully healthy roster.

Ayton had a poor first shift, which included an indescribable gaffe of stopping on a roll when he had no one between him and the basket. He responded very well after that, playing his best basketball through four games by being the number one piece of the puzzle in the Suns’ tremendous defense for the middle quarters.

On top of that, the Suns didn’t do much to get him post touches and instead had him marauding on rim runs through endless ball screens. Ayton got active on the offensive glass, and when he’s done that the past two seasons, he’s been a monster. That’s the formula to Ayton being an All-Star. Not three-pointers. Not post moves or bringing the ball up.

“I thought Deandre did a really good job after about the first five minutes of the game. He just dove and was a huge presence in the paint,” Williams said.

As Williams spoke postgame, Langston Galloway and Jevon Carter were getting shots up on the main court while Frank Kaminsky was running for some conditioning work. Crowder said there was a weight lifting session behind the scenes too involving almost everyone not seen on the court.

That’ll happen after games, sure, but it was quite the visual representation of the program Williams has built that we’ve heard so many good things about. And all that was on the Suns’ new court after a win in the new jerseys that was such a blowout that TNT switched to another game late in the fourth quarter.

It’s hard to see all that and not feel like we’re in a new era of Suns basketball.

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