EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns vs. Pelicans series preview, Pt. 2: New Orleans’ big starting 5

Apr 16, 2022, 4:48 PM | Updated: 4:48 pm
Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots over during the third quarter of an NBA ga...
Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots over during the third quarter of an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on March 15, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The New Orleans Pelicans are a fascinating matchup for the Phoenix Suns because of the way in which a couple different elements, in theory, favor the Pelicans.

Phoenix is a heavy favorite and will likely take care of this first-round playoff series in four or five games, but the Pelicans could make it tough on the Suns.

After covering one of those ways already, Willie Green’s familiarity with the Suns, another is the Pelicans’ size.

Green went the untraditional route after C.J. McCollum’s arrival in mid-February, starting athletic and mobile 6-foot-11 center Jaxson Hayes at power forward alongside bruising 6-foot-11 center Jonas Valanciunas.

But it goes beyond that pair.

Brandon Ingram (6-foot-8) and Herb Jones (6-foot-8) are incredibly long wings and McCollum actually runs the offense at 6-foot-3, where his size isn’t a detriment like it was at two-guard in Portland.

To go the A-B-C route of the Suns’ defensive assignments first, that’s an interesting starting point since we’ve never seen these versions of the rosters fully healthy against each other yet.

Deandre Ayton on Valanciunas is cut and dry, as is Chris Paul playing off the ball on Jones.

The intrigue starts with who Mikal Bridges defends. While Ingram doesn’t have much bulk on him, bigger scoring wings have done well against this Suns core in the past, such as Paul George in last year’s Western Conference Finals.

Maybe that’s Jae Crowder’s mark but Crowder’s physicality with someone like Hayes crashing the glass will be needed. Crowder could also continue thriving in his help role with Paul on the low-usage offensive players.

So does Bridges take Ingram or McCollum? Ingram is the mismatch creator but McCollum is the more skilled offensive player and, as the point guard, is the heart of the offense.

While McCollum isn’t someone who has topped the scoring charts in his career, he’s one of the best scorers in the NBA and is one heck of a shooter too.

Suns head coach Monty Williams after practice on Saturday elaborated on how dangerous that is at the point guard position.

“It’s just a different dynamic,” Williams said. “He has, I don’t want to overstate it, but there’s not many guys that bring the ball up that can shoot it the way that he can. I mean, it’s like Steph, Dame — those kinds of guys. Your pickup points are so much different than they are with most of the point guards in the league. And then he has the ability to play in pick-and-roll. And he’s big. It’s not like he’s 6’1″.”

McCollum’s scoring ability has a lot to do with just his overall shotmaking. It’s a very short list of players in the league who consistently make tough shots more than he does.

“That poses some challenges for your team because you have a guy that can play in pick-and-roll, a guy that can play 1-on-1 and a guy that can hit like every shot imaginable,” Williams said. “He’s one of the rare guys that can dribble 10, 12 times and still get off a clean shot. Most times, guys dribble that much, they’re tired at the end of the game. It doesn’t seem to work that way with him. He’s changed their team for sure.”

McCollum is also someone Devin Booker has matched up with over the years in games against the Trail Blazers.

“Just a very talented, skillful guard. He has a neverending bag of tricks, bag of moves,” Booker said of McCollum.

My bet is Booker taking that matchup. He was terrific on Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday in the Finals last year and still managed to be productive offensively at the highest level despite expending that much energy on defense.

That leaves Bridges on Ingram. I’m sure we’ll see Bridges on McCollum some but I think it’ll primarily be Ingram and that series-long battle will be great to watch.

The key with Ingram and McCollum is that the shotmaking is just inevitable, and the Suns know that.

“We just have to make it hard on them,” Booker said. “They have a couple players over there that are really good that good defense just isn’t enough. So you just have to understand that, and we preach wear-down effect. We play all through 48 minutes no matter what happens.”

The most important 1-on-1 bout, however, will be Ayton and Valanciunas.

Even if you are Michael Jordan or LeBron James, there’s always a couple of guys across the league that not necessarily have your number, but really thrive with that particular matchup more than you’d assume.

Everyone has a few, and for Ayton, it has been Valanciunas.

In the eight games those two have played against each other, Valanciunas averages 20.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 63.4% from the field compared to Ayton’s 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.9 blocks a night on a 57.6% field goal percentage.

I think just about everyone would agree that Ayton is the better player by a pretty decent margin. That has not been the case in the individual matchup, a great test for Ayton to follow up on his phenomenal job in this area against Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic last postseason.

Ayton is a really good post defender but Valanciunas’ strength finds a way to score efficiently on the block still against the 23-year-old.

And Valanciunas really turns into a disruptive force on the offensive glass. Of those 12.4 rebounds per game, over four of them are creating second-chance points opportunities.

Speaking of!

Defensive rebounding has felt like a weakness for the Suns because of its tendency to pop up in games they are either struggling to put away or losing. The numbers aren’t that bad. Phoenix is 13th in defensive rebounding percentage (72.8%) and tied for 20th in the amount of second-chance points it gives up per game (13.6).

Sure, they aren’t stellar numbers. But they aren’t terrible. Does that still make it a weakness? Hard to say.

Regardless, the Pelicans are a team that will capitalize on it.

Ever since Hayes entered the starting lineup permanently post-McCollum trade on Feb. 17, the Pelicans’ offensive rebounding percentage of 33.2% ranks second leaguewide across a sample size of 24 games.

Most of that is backup center Willy Hernangomez (3.2 offensive rebounds a night), Valanciunas (2.7) and Hayes (2.1) but backup big Larry Nance Jr. (1.6), Jones (1.2), guard Naji Marshall (1.0) and wing Trey Murphy III (0.9) will chip in as well.

Two of the Suns’ three worst games in terms of giving up second-chance points came against New Orleans. They allowed 26 in a Jan. 4 win and 29 on March 15, another victory. The Pelicans still managed 18 and 15 in the two other meetings.

As you would expect, the Suns have been emphasizing this a whole lot. Williams on Saturday rattled off the exact total of second-chance points New Orleans had in those four games and took a few unrelated answers back to being “able to come up with the first missed shot and not give them extra possessions.”

“We gotta do a much better job in this series of keeping the ball in front of us,” Williams said. “And then if we can do that, we don’t have to be in rotations.”

To go back to Part 1, Green knows this has been a problematic area of the floor for the Suns at times, so New Orleans’ mentality on the boards will be even more ferocious.

The Suns have come up against this before in the postseason and succeeded. The Lakers’ supersized frontcourt rotation of Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell posed this threat and Phoenix managed it. Ditto for the Denver Nuggets the next round with JaMychal Green, Aaron Gordon, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic.

“That was the story for us last year,” Paul said of rebounding. “Been the same thing for us all season this year. We know how big they are or whatnot but we gotta do what we gotta do.”

For the Suns, it’s about a gang-rebounding focus as a team. Ayton cannot do it all, especially with how full his hands will be with Valanciunas and helping the point-of-attack defenders with McCollum and Ingram.

Suns wing Torey Craig shared what gang rebounding entails.

“One guy taking the other guy out and the other guy coming to clean up,” he said. “Three guys going to rebound together. Just rebounding as a unit, collectively.”

If that gets done, something Williams mentioned is that Phoenix’s well-known “wear-down effect” that Booker also referenced can really start to impact a game when it does not give the opposition more life through offensive rebounds and turnovers.

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