Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton lead Suns through grinding win in New Orleans

Apr 22, 2022, 11:30 PM | Updated: Apr 23, 2022, 1:13 am

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicans durin...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round game at the Smoothie King Center on April 22, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS — It was far from pretty. It required two phenomenal individual performances.

In the Phoenix Suns’ 114-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, we still did not see the same 64-win team we are used to.

And all of that from their perspective is A-OK for the time being because Phoenix now has a 2-1 lead in the first round after getting a gutsy victory without Devin Booker (hamstring).

“That’s a big win for us,” point guard Chris Paul said of winning the first game without Booker. “We knew it was going to be by committee. We knew coming into this arena was going to be tough. I think everybody just pitched in tonight and we did enough to win.”

After New Orleans for six of the series’s eight quarters found a way to somewhat rattle a Suns squad that usually does not get rattled, the safe bet was for Phoenix to turn that around in Game 3, even without Booker.

While they got close, the Suns were not able to turn that corner, so that made it an impressive win.

From seven-point spurts via Jose Alvarado, 11-point spurts via Devonte’ Graham or a combined 39 second-half points out of Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum, this New Orleans team just has a way of not only hanging in there but taking back over a game if the Suns leave it on the table.

With 5:13 left in the second quarter and the score tied, Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes was ejected after a Flagrant 2 foul for shoving the Suns’ Jae Crowder while a shot was up in the air.

As expected, that woke the Suns up a bit.

“It seems like when teams try to do that to us, it turns us up, if anything,” center JaVale McGee said. “It makes us go harder. … I wouldn’t recommend that for teams (to do).”

Halftime arrived with an 11-point Suns lead. Deandre Ayton was superb in that first half, recording 21 of his 28 playoff career-high points and seven of his 17 rebounds. Ayton said it was Booker in his ear all evening, constantly telling the center to look to “score the ball” over and over again.

If Ayton hadn’t stepped up, who knows how this game (and series) would have gone?

With that in mind, think of that surge as less of the Suns stabilizing and more of them just being able to stand on two feet for once — and it was Ayton propelling them.

“You can’t replace everything that Devin does for us. So it’s going to be different spurts where guys get going, and DA kept us in this game in order to bring it home down the stretch,” Paul said.

Like Game 3 as a whole, it was a fascinating crossroads to see if the Pelicans were about it, as an eight-seed facing a wounded top seed that just connected with the best punch of the game thus far.

They were indeed about it.

A few sloppy possessions of offense from the Suns resulted in a 12-0 Pelicans run midway through the third quarter. Phoenix continued missing open 3-pointers and would the rest of the night, shooting a woeful 4-of-26 (15.4%) at range.

“I told the guys that exact word: resolve. … We told our guys in a late timeout in the third, ‘We can’t waver right now because we’re getting good shots right now. … ‘ But for our team to be able to weather the run that they made was huge,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

The aforementioned Ingram and McCollum resurgence after being restricted in the first half by great Suns defense got the Pelicans back in the game. And Alvarado’s unreal seven straight points for New Orleans in the early fourth quarter forced the Suns to answer.

They did just enough, and then a sense of normalcy finally kicked in.

Paul flipped the switch to Point God mode, the annihilator of opposing fourth-quarter defenses. After Ayton was told by Booker to score, Ayton relayed that same message to Paul in the fourth, and he obliged.

Paul scored or assisted 23 of the Suns’ final 31 points, a conclusion that included 15 straight from 9:57 remaining to 4:16 on the clock.

At that point, the Pelicans’ offense was forced into submission by the Suns’ defense. Starting center Jonas Valanciunas was played off the floor, only for his backup Larry Nance Jr. to take two 3-pointers he missed that the Suns wanted him to take.

The first Nance 3-point attempt was followed by two huge plays by Crowder, an offensive rebound putback off a Paul miss as the shot clock expired and then a deep corner 2 set up by Paul off the point guard rebounding his own miss.

That Crowder jumper put the Suns up seven with 2:08 to go. McCollum scored, Paul answered and then that second Nance misfire from 3 signaled we were done.

Paul produced 19 points in the fourth quarter to end up with 28 and added 14 assists plus zero turnovers. It was likely the Suns were going to need some form of his heroics while Booker heals up, and Paul delivered.

McGee was tremendous off the bench, scoring 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. New Orleans continued switching while Nance was on the floor like they had earlier in the series, and the Suns took advantage of it. Phoenix all season has sought out its bigs when they get mismatches, sometimes to the offensive flow’s detriment, but all that work and progression led to Friday’s huge evening for the centers.

“JaVale was amazing. We talked about it. … We wanted to try and punish him on the inside,” Paul said of McGee and the switching with Nance.

Outside of Ayton, McGee and Paul, it’s hard to say anyone else played well offensively for Phoenix.

Cam Payne (1-for-5) had his third straight rough game, and Landry Shamet (2-for-7) didn’t convert on any of his five 3-point attempts despite making a few good plays in other areas. Ditto for Crowder’s (4-of-10) five tries from deep too that maintained his poor shooting numbers this series.

Cam Johnson (3-of-7) started the game in place of Booker before Shamet began the second half in that spot.

Mikal Bridges (4-of-9) did a phenomenal job defensively on McCollum, especially in the first half. The knockdown rates for Ingram’s 34 points (11-for-19) and McCollum’s 30 (11-of-23) did not paint an accurate picture of the defensive job the Suns did.

“It just takes a lot of focus and energy but you also have to have good team defense around you,” Williams said of shadowing that duo. “You have to show those guys bodies and you can’t get deterred, upset, emotionally off your game when they make a tough shot because that’s what they do. … They ended up with 64 points but I think it was a tough 64 and that’s how you have to make it for guys that score every night in this league.”

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