EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns shockingly lose focus in playoff game, fall to Pelicans in Game 2
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are the favorites for the NBA championship, and while they’ve used the swagger that comes with believing they’re the best team in the world to their advantage all season, for the first time we saw the negative effects of that instead of the positives on Tuesday.
A Game 2 125-114 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was one in which the Suns lacked their usually incredible level of focus and attention to detail. That mental disconnect was something they couldn’t get past throughout all four quarters, an exact reason why it cannot happen in a playoff game and it’s why they’ve now lost homecourt in the first-round series.
Yes, Devin Booker did not return to the game after injuring his right hamstring in the late third quarter following a 31-point first half. Yes, Jae Crowder missed a bunch of shots. Yes, that was not the Chris Paul we are used to.
All three of those things together (and whatever else you want to throw into that category) didn’t make the game unwinnable but the Suns lost it because of a lack of execution that goes back to no top-tier mental lock-in.
“Give them credit. I thought they played harder than we did, and I told our guys that,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We typically don’t get outplayed from an intensity standpoint.”
Leakouts just killed the Suns, as the Pelicans kept sending players on the fastbreak early and Phoenix didn’t have a group effort with urgency to get back in transition. New Orleans had 16 fastbreak points and a handful more weren’t added to the total in the leakout situations.
“That was probably for us the worst we’ve ever looked in transition since I’ve been here,” Williams said of his team’s defense in transition. “For that to happen in a playoff game is a bit unsettling. Our guys have to understand this team is going to play hard every possession.”
“It’s an understanding of what they’re doing,” Williams added. “They’re contesting and taking off. The backside of our offense has to get back. That’s just basketball 101.”
As Williams also mentioned, there were several mental lapses against a great Pelicans offensive effort. Basic things like KYP (know your personnel), going over or under a screen and getting hands up on contests were just surprisingly inconsistent.
Williams signed off when asked if the lack of focus surprised him.
“Yeah. It does,” he said. “Just because, one, we’re at home. Two, all of these games are so important.”
Offensively, the Suns were not playing in 0.5 the way Williams wants. Semi-open shots were there, especially in the first half, and the Suns kept moving the ball or looking for something else in those instances.
All of this is grading the Suns on the very high curve in a specific department they’ve been exceptional in. That should not take away any credit from how awesome the Pelicans were in a hostile road environment for what was many players’ second career playoff game.
New Orleans head coach Willie Green spoke pregame about how he wanted his team to start trusting each other more and acting with less hesitation. He did a tremendous job of inspiring some confidence in his young team after a loss, because the Pelicans did not blink all night and a lot of what they did offensively looked sustainable.
Brandon Ingram (37 points) and C.J. McCollum (23) were great with their usual expert shotmaking but Herb Jones (14), Larry Nance Jr. (13), Jaxson Hayes (9), Trey Murphy III (9) and Jose Alvarado (8) all scored with a sense of belief that wasn’t there for them as a group in Game 1.
You could see the cons of this approach, like a wild Murphy pull-up 3 in transition or some of the ambitious faceup attempts from Nance, but man did Green do one heck of a job getting his group to believe.
The ball was zipping around the way it normally does for Phoenix, to the tune of 32 assists and a 17-of-30 (56.7) shooting performance from 3-point range.
New Orleans’ production in four quarters of 30, 26, 34 and 35, respectively, did not allow Phoenix much room to get back in the game.
“Our defense was kinda spotty tonight,” Paul said. “It’s almost like we hoped they miss tonight instead of making them miss.”
Booker’s explosion in the first half got the Suns up five at halftime across 24 minutes where it was evident they were not the better team thus far. After the first four minutes of the third quarter, there was no mental reset you could see from Phoenix, and the leakouts for the Pelicans just got more and more overt.
The Suns were outscored 34-22 in the third quarter and chased the game from there. We did see clutch minutes, when the score is within five and there are under five minutes left, but an area of the game the Suns dominated to a historical extent in the regular season did not carry over to the first playoff occurrence.
Going back a minute and change to McCollum’s 3-pointer with 6:19 left, that was the first of eight straight made shots for the Pelicans. That gave them a seven-point lead with 1:43 to go, and after Paul missed a 3-pointer, Jones snuck by in a transition runout yet again to earn free throws, a logical dagger to effectively wrap things up.
Phoenix had a more than fine day offensively, posting a field goal percentage of 50% and dishing out 26 assists.
Paul looked human. His masterful touch on pretty much any shot wasn’t present on Tuesday. He shot 5-of-16 for 17 points and 14 assists.
Mikal Bridges was the only Suns player on that weak side of the defense to fully hold up his end of the bargain with 7-of-11 shooting and 19 points.
Crowder’s 2-of-11 shooting was to the dismay of many Suns fans who felt he was too aggressive. Crowder, however, was being guarded by Hayes, the weak link of the Pelicans’ defense the Suns were often targeting. He needed to keep his foot on the gas but it just wasn’t his night.
Booker was 12-of-19 for those 31 points in 25 minutes and knocked down seven 3s. His status, one Williams did not have an update on postgame, obviously looms over the Suns’ chances in the postseason.
With that in mind, while he is their best and most important player, Phoenix can still more than handle this Pelicans team without him if necessary. And in my opinion, neither potential second-round opponent would beat the Suns in that scenario as well. Phoenix has the ability as a team to not only stay afloat but keep things mostly operational if Booker needs a week or two to get back up to speed.
After a game in which the secret sauce to that ability was all but gone, the Suns will need to relocate it immediately.