EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns have no answer for Zion Williamson in loss to Pelicans

Feb 3, 2021, 11:08 PM | Updated: Feb 4, 2021, 1:46 pm
New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks past Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) ...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks past Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and guard Chris Paul (3) in the fouirth quarter of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

(AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

Wednesday’s formula for a Phoenix Suns 123-101 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was not rocket science.

The Suns could not hit open shots all night, shooting 8-of-35 (22.9%) from three-point range. They had no answer for Pelicans star Zion Williamson, who scored 28 points in 32 minutes on 14 shots.

Phoenix (11-9) offered no counterweights elsewhere to help offset those two deciding factors.

Devin Booker scored 25 points and got the team going a little bit in the third quarter, but Phoenix’s next-highest scoring player was Deandre Ayton with 13.

That says something considering that the Pelicans were clogging the paint all night, completely fine with letting the Suns shooters beat them as opposed to Chris Paul’s penetration and Ayton’s rolls to the basket.

“It’s a hard one to explain,” Williams said of the Suns continuing to miss high-quality looks as of late. “The shot quality is there … We missed so many open shots. We knew the defense that they were going to implement, where the low man was going to take DA on the dive and we were gonna have shots on the weak side — we just couldn’t make ’em.”

Williams surprisingly saw a change in his team when shots weren’t falling.

“For whatever reason, we let our lack of shotmaking in the first half kind of get us down a little bit. I haven’t seen that from this group,” he said. “Our guys expect to make shots but I thought we had so many open looks in the first half, and when we didn’t make them, I thought it affected us on the other end a little bit.

“We played pretty good defense in the first, especially that second quarter. We just couldn’t score.”

That defense did not carry over to the second half. The Suns managed to be down just three at halftime before giving up 40 points in the third quarter. The Pelicans (8-12) cruised from there.

In Monday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks, the stupendous effort from Booker and Paul made up for a poor shooting night from the Suns’ wing trio. The wings could replicate that outing on Wednesday, but not Paul and Booker.

Mikal Bridges (4-of-12), Cam Johnson (3-for-9) and Jae Crowder (1-of-4) combined for only 19 points. It’s easy to take for granted those nights where one of those guys drops 15 and another provides 12, and the offense really suffers when none of the three can hit a shot.

Bridges is now 4-for-28 (14.3%) from three-point range in his last six games after a 0-for-7 mark on Wednesday. He’s now at 38.9% on the year, a credit to how tremendous of a start he got off to this season.

As far as Williamson goes, the Suns switched a lot early but had Johnson taking the primary assignment. That did not go well, as the Pelicans continued to attack Johnson in different situations. When Crowder was in, it wasn’t much different. He had arguably his worst performance of the year and Wiliams only played him 13 minutes.

It was later revealed on Thursday that Crowder is dealing with a right foot injury, which would explain his ineffectiveness and low amount of playing time.

Williamson had 15 of his 28 points in the first quarter.

“Doesn’t matter who guards him, you gotta show some resistance,” Williams said. “I didn’t think we showed a lot of resistance, especially early. There were times where we had four guys around him and he still dribbled right by us and got to the basket … You have to be able to stay in front of somebody for at least two dribbles to help your defense.”

New Orleans was everpresent on the offensive glass, where Steven Adams (8) and Williamson (3) combined for 11 of the Pelicans’ 12 offensive rebounds.

Adams got the better of Ayton for a handful of those, while the Suns’ gang rebounding in general took a while to come together. Ayton himself continues to be consistent as a high-level rebounder in the past couple weeks, with four of his 11 coming on the offensive end against the Pelicans.

Paul had 10 points and four assists. That assist number would have been a whole lot higher had the Suns hit some open looks. And, again, the Pelicans schemed him out of the game as much as they could by blitzing in pick-and-roll to limit Paul’s ability to attack mismatches.

New Orleans head coach Stan Van Gundy said he thought that was the best game his team played all year. The Pelicans had 30 assists, seven turnovers and seven players in double figures. Brandon Ingram scored 23 points and Lonzo Ball added 18. They held the Suns under 30 points in all four quarters and below 50 in the first half.

Booker was asked about the job the Suns did on Williamson, as that’s the type of player that a team has a gameplan for and defends as a unit. His assessment was “not well” before giving a nod to the Suns’ hit-or-miss execution on some nights 20 games in, with the team’s three-game winning streak coming to an end.

“You can have any gameplan going into the game. Until you actually get out there and the game is moving at full speed, things happen differently,” Booker said.

“We have some work to do.”

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