DAN BICKLEY

Suns punch back vs. Pelicans in Game 3, a pivotal Big Easy brawl

Apr 22, 2022, 10:45 PM | Updated: Apr 23, 2022, 1:13 am
Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans controls the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoen...
Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans controls the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns 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 – The Big Easy gets dangerous after dark. Visitors are warned to stay out of the shadows and the back alleys.

The Suns are not ordinary tourists. They punch back. They are a basketball team comfortable in the muck or inside a brawl. Like Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But a 114-111 victory over the Pelicans on Friday night might yet be remembered as a pivotal moment in the Suns’ postseason journey.

For a moment, resolve prevailed. Order has been restored.

“I told the guys that exact word: resolve,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

With Devin Booker in street clothes, the Suns received superstar performances on demand from Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. Paul was again the ruthless closer, just like he was in Game 1. He now has 38 fourth-quarter points in two victories.

Meanwhile, Ayton was alert and on the attack from the jump. He dominated a former nemesis, Jonas Valanciunas. His 28 points and 17 rebounds were reminiscent of what peak Amar’e Stoudemire once brought to postseason games in Phoenix.

“It’s a big win for us,” Paul said. “We knew it was going to be by committee. We knew coming into this arena it was going to be tough. I think everybody just pitched in tonight … and we did enough to win.”

The Suns are still missing contributions from certain key members. But collectively, they brought a different kind of energy to their first road game of the postseason. It was basketball with an attitude.

It thundered from Landry Shamet, who played nearly 30 minutes and threw down a pair of outrageous dunks. It emanated from JaVale McGee, who provided key production off the bench. It oozed from Jae Crowder, who took charges and tilted the game with his physicality until a few shots finally dropped.

The Suns scored 64 points in the paint. They allowed only one offensive rebound in the second half. Those numbers pleased Williams immensely, and they should. It was an impact statement from a wounded team that showed up ready to play, ready to fight, ready to win.

“We’re sort of battle-tested when it comes to things … guys know what to expect,” Paul said.

Tempers flared early. During a first-quarter stoppage in play, C.J. McCollum was about to hoist up a practice shot from in front of the Suns bench, a common occurrence for a player looking to find early rhythm. Booker pushed him gently in the back, preventing the practice trey. The crowd booed and the two exchanged words.

It continued after a Shamet poster dunk, when Mikal Bridges walked up on the victim (Jaxson Hayes) in taunting fashion. And when the heat of Game 3 became an inferno, Hayes snapped.

The Pelicans forward was ejected for flagrantly pushing Crowder to the ground from behind. The same way Denver’s Nikola Jokic snapped in the previous postseason against the Suns. The same way Patrick Beverley snapped in the Western Conference Finals, pushing Paul from behind.

But these Pelicans are well-coached and sturdier than most. They hung around long enough to again be tormented by Paul, who once played in this city and had received something of a hero’s welcome entering Game 3. But by the end of a hardcore hardwood fistfight, a chunk of the crowd lost their minds. They began chanting, “(Bleep) Chris Paul.”

Williams absolved the fan base, blaming it on the idiot fringe. Paul shook off the disrespect, saying there is nothing but love between him and the city.

It was just that kind of night. It was that kind of victory.

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

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