EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Is the Pelicans’ Game 1 rebound advantage a concern for Suns?

Apr 17, 2022, 10:40 PM | Updated: 11:36 pm

PHOENIX — It does not feel after Game 1 of a first-round opener that the Phoenix Suns won’t beat the New Orleans Pelicans.

It does not feel like this is not the team that earned the top seed in the NBA.

Behind an explosion of a fourth quarter from Chris Paul that landed him 30 points by the end of the game, Phoenix won comfortably, 110-99 on Sunday at Footprint Center.

Anytime a team can hold an opponent to 38% shooting for a game, a lot is going right.

But considering the Suns did not leave many misses to be rebounded by the Pelicans, hitting 54% of their attempts, and considering the Pelicans couldn’t buy a bucket, it might be concerning that it was New Orleans ending up plus-20 on the offensive glass.

It ended with the Pelicans taking 17 more shot attempts.

“That allows for them to have so many more extra possessions,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That can tire you out. We hadn’t played in over a week. I thought there was some rust on our side, execution of some offensive sets. … I told our guys, to be able to persevere under those circumstances, playoff game, win the game, you’ll take it every time.”

Still, does it concern the Suns that their opponent may have missed a litany of point-blank paint shots — many off those offensive rebounds? Maybe it was a sign of tired legs from a team that’s played three games in three cities over a five-day span.

New Orleans scored 29 second-chance points to Phoenix’s seven, yet went an abysmal 11-of-23 after recovering its own misses.

“I’m not sure what we shot from the paint but it was pretty poor. I think that was self-inflicted,” Pelicans center Larry Nance Jr. said. “We rushed our shots a little bit … but it’s something we corrected and came out the second half. We scored 65 in the second half. We found a way to play.”

Looking beyond this series from the Suns’ view, does it highlight an issue that, on the margins, could become a problem at some point in these playoffs?

Phoenix did enter the postseason with offensive board allowance among the team’s (small) weaknesses.

It was a bigger problem Sunday night than the final score indicated. The Suns won the paint points, 50-38, with the Pelicans’ own interior defense more wide open than any swinging saloon door from any old Western movie of your choosing.

New Orleans, though, shot 19-of-56 (33%) in the paint, with center Jonas Valanciunas going 7-of-21. That line somewhat negated his 25 total rebounds, 13 of which were offensive.

That production wasn’t all on Phoenix center Deandre Ayton, who by and large had his own — albeit different — ways of impacting the game.

Ayton scored 21 points and added nine rebounds and four blocks. The Suns’ big man attacked at all three levels, catching lobs and hitting mid-range buckets. He even stepped out for a three to make the Pelicans pay for over-aggressively hounding Phoenix’s Chris Paul in the fullcourt.

“It’s supposed to be five blocks, by the way,” Devin Booker said. “He just protected our paint, man. We tell him that everyday. If somebody gets beat, you rotate. We have to have his back when Valanciunas is in offensive rebounding position and those other guys are crashing. We’re telling him ‘sell out, stop the ball.'”

Part of it, surely, was the perimeter defenders allowing more drives, especially in the third quarter. Ayton leaving Valanciunas forced other players to search for and stop the Pelicans’ big man from crashing the glass. Other times, it could have been flub-ups in execution in pick-and-roll coverages that saw a shot out of the action.

Initially after the game, the fix was just about Phoenix’s mentality.

“It’s not the old rebounding drills you do in high school … You can’t do any real contact like that in practice. We can stress it, but it has to be on our minds every possession,” Booker said.

Williams said that he would need to review the film to determine if there was one underlying issue. But, yeah, there was enough on his mind to know it shouldn’t have been that big of a deficit on the glass.

“We have to have a hit-first mentality,” Williams added. “Shot goes up, everybody’s star-gazing. … We just have to do a better job. I can sit here and talk about it all day long.”

Ayton talked out the possibility that he may have to make changes in how aggressively he leaves his man to help.

“Maybe I’m going to have to stay (on the big) and I can’t go (help) this time, give a good fight and try to get the board, close out possessions,” he said, thinking out loud.

Coming off a game that saw his team hold the Pelicans to 38% shooting, you’d imagine the Suns won’t be the ones making wholesale changes to their gameplans.

And again, Ayton’s teammates were not putting the discrepancy on him.

“It is our job (to rebound),” Paul said, speaking as a perimeter player. “We a team. For us, we’re not going to grow overnight. We just need to keep putting bodies on guys, boxing out, trying to do it as a collective.”

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