DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ Chris Paul gives Pelicans powerful reminder of his greatness in Game 1 win

Apr 17, 2022, 9:50 PM | Updated: 11:36 pm

PHOENIX — Chris Paul is not up for any postseason awards. The “M-V-P” chants inside Footprint Center are now reserved for Devin Booker.

The veteran point guard has become something of an afterthought since the All-Star break, a veteran who has learned to pace himself, content to nurture and feed a team of growing young stars.

But the Phoenix Suns’ playoff debut on Sunday was a powerful reminder. A showcase for Paul’s special brand of greatness. A declaration of who is truly in charge around here.

“That’s just classic Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said postgame. “At the right time, he takes over. And we needed it.”

Paul dominated the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 110-99 victory over the Pelicans. He rescued the Suns from a second-half lethargy that brought needless drama to the Game 1 festivities. He finished with 30 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. He scored 19 points in the fourth quarter after attempting zero shots in the first quarter.

“That man is a true competitor, a true winner,” Booker said. “He wants it that bad. You can see it in his demeanor. You can see it in his walk. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody.”

Two other things became clear during Sunday’s victory: The Suns are the best team in the NBA, clear favorites to win a championship 54 years in the making.

They were already the deepest, most cohesive team in the league. But in the first half of Game 1, they unleashed a rabid mentality, a blend of stifling defense and indomitable will that makes the Suns practically untouchable.

Mikal Bridges was seen diving on the floor for a loose ball and blocking Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas at the rim. JaVale McGee then rejected a dunk attempt from Naji Marshall. And in the TNT studio, Shaquille O’Neal wondered aloud if he was watching David Robinson or Deandre Ayton.

The spirited beginning was as comforting as a shaded parking spot in the summer, a reminder that the Suns want this as badly as we do.

It was also clear the Suns received a fortuitous break before their own journey began, when the Clippers lost Paul George to health and safety protocols and the subsequent play-in game that would determine the Suns’ first-round opponent.

No offense to New Orleans, a great city with an amazing culture of its own. But their basketball team is no real threat to the Suns. A full-strength Clippers team would’ve brought a different energy, a heightened sense of danger to a first-round matchup against the Suns.

To wit:

It’s not unusual for the Suns to put on a show during pre-game warmups, when the right song blasting over the public address system can turn their layup line into an episode of Dance Party USA. But you should’ve seen them on Sunday. They looked a team that already knew the outcome.

Yes, they lost focus.

They stopped rebounding, allowing the Pelicans to score 37 points in the third quarter after holding them to just 34 in the first half. They allowed 29 second-chance points. They took bad shots.

That’s on the Suns, a team that got too comfortable after building a 23-point lead. A team that once again needed their veteran leader to get them to the finish line.

“He’s just a great basketball player,” Williams said. “Not just a great point guard. But a great basketball player.”

That has never changed. Even if we all need a reminder every now and again.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Suns’ Chris Paul gives Pelicans powerful reminder of his greatness in Game 1 win