Chris Paul flurry, stellar 1st half leads Phoenix Suns past Pelicans in Game 1

Apr 17, 2022, 10:57 PM | Updated: 11:37 pm

PHOENIX — When Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker was asked by the media last year about dominant stretches from Chris Paul, he would simply reply, “That’s Chris Paul.”

Sunday’s Game 1 in the first round against the New Orleans Pelicans was certainly Chris Paul.

Paul scored 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter and added seven rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and a block on 12-of-16 shooting in a 110-99 win.

It wasn’t necessarily Superman darting around with his cape to singlehandedly save the day, as Phoenix played a sensational first half of basketball to lead by 19 points at halftime, but the Pelicans cutting the deficit down to six in the fourth quarter required someone to step up.

As expected, that was Paul.

He erupted in the quarter’s first four minutes for 13 points, taking that six-point lead and doubling it to a dozen. If we include one JaVale McGee free throw and an assist to McGee from Paul, the Suns got points on their first seven possessions of the fourth quarter for 16 points in 3:57.

Paul said he heard Pelicans head coach Willie Green, his former teammate and former Suns assistant, telling Pelicans defenders to go under screens. Paul’s response, a trio of triples in under two minutes, showed how truly impossible it is to defend that man. There is no right answer.

“That’s like inviting me to shoot,” Paul said.

Paul’s layup on Phoenix’s first chance at points following a Pelicans timeout made it 97-83 Suns and was the one-man act of stabilization that would take Phoenix home with a win.

New Orleans deserves major props for turning this back into a game in the third quarter, especially when you factor in the two intense play-in fixtures they had to get through earlier in the week.

And you know what, I need another especially, because it was even more impressive especially after one of the best halves a Monty Williams-coached Suns team has ever played.

Phoenix was executing the heck out of what it wanted to get done on both ends. It turned up the team defense so much that it forced the Pelicans’ individual-based offense to beat the Suns as a cohesive unit.

That wasn’t happening.

New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram (6-for-17) and C.J. McCollum (9-for-25) were hounded with precise switches, traps and off-ball helpers to deny their space as much as possible once they started to even think about getting downhill.

“We were just connected,” Paul said of the Suns’ defense. “We were making it tough on C.J., same thing with B.I. and closing out to they shooters. We was just on a string. I think a lot of times people think about our offense and how we move the ball and stuff but our defense is what we really sort of hang our hats on.”

And if the Pelicans managed to get through that to the rim, there was major resistance there, most commonly from Deandre Ayton, who was also part of the efforts to cut off that duo on the perimeter.

“It was fun,” Ayton said of getting to be a presence on the exterior and interior of the defense. “Just being that coordinated, telling my guys where the screen is coming from and where I’m at on the screen. I like sliding my feet. Just being out there and causing havoc.”

New Orleans shot a bafflingly 3-of-24 from the paint in the first half with 15 offensive rebounds, managing just six points in the paint despite all those second-chance opportunities. When those misses came, the Suns ran with numbers for 13 fastbreak points in the first half.

Those New Orleans opportunities, however, continued to come in the third quarter and did produce those second-chance points. The Pelicans’ dozen in the first half doubled to 24 through three quarters. That plagued the Suns in regular-season meetings against the Pelicans and persisted on Sunday. An 18-5 New Orleans run in the last 5:36 of the quarter turned a 21-point Suns lead into eight.

“We have to have a hit-first mentality,” Williams said of the Pelicans’ 25 total offensive rebounds. “When you look around the league, boxing out has become a lost art. When the shot goes up, everybody’s stargazing. We’ve talked about it and our guys understand it.”

In order to do what the Suns wanted to do on Ingram and McCollum, Ayton’s presence was often required away from Valanciunas’ space, and that’s where a lot of those rebounds came from. Williams said some of that in the third quarter was just giving up the driving lanes in the first place.

“Obviously making it tough on their two primary scorers,” Booker said of the Suns’ defensive strategy. “But the thing about shifting, it kind of puts you in a disposition for rebounding. Finding that balance of shifting off somebody, and a lot of those guys are crashing every possession over there. Finding a way to be physical with them before they get in the paint.”

Valanciunas had one of the most bizarre stat lines you’ll ever see. He shot 7-of-21 for 18 points with 25 rebounds, 13 of which came on the offensive glass. His tip-ins, putbacks and touch shots were off all evening after doing the hard work to earn ’em.

“We were up some with our bigs, and so if the shot goes up, they’re behind,” Williams said of how those chances came to be. “And Valanciunas is a big dude. We just have to do a much better job of keeping him off the glass.”

Ayton was outstanding and had a large impact on that poor shooting. He had four blocks to go with 21 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting.

“He just protected our paint. We tell him that every day. If somebody gets beat, you rotate,” Booker said of Ayton. “We have to have his back when (Jonas) Valanciunas is in offensive rebounding position and those other guys are crashing.”

Booker’s shotmaking was not as dialed in as we’ve come to expect but he was reading the floor with tremendous savvy to produce 25 points (8-for-19) and eight assists.

Mikal Bridges was phenomenal defensively on McCollum. McCollum was having a far worse shooting night before a second-half stretch of 7-of-14 that mostly came when Bridges was resting.

Cam Johnson (13 points) was great off the bench for Phoenix. Cam Payne (1-of-6) was not and will need to bounce back for Game 2.

Landry Shamet wound up as available after being listed as questionable due to a left foot sprain but he did not play. Williams said that came down to shrinking the rotation and he talked to Shamet about it before the game.

New Orleans was held to 20 assists.

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