Suns-Pelicans Game 4 preview: Incremental progress, CP3’s chess match

Apr 23, 2022, 5:35 PM
Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talks to Chris Paul #3 during the second half of Game...
Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talks to Chris Paul #3 during the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round game against the New Orleans Pelicans 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 — Friday night’s 114-111 win for the Phoenix Suns against the New Orleans Pelicans was not the snap of a finger from the NBA’s best team to return to a level of play that reflects being just that.

Game 3, however, was still a win for the Suns, and one that we at least saw some incremental progress in after an unrecognizable effort in Game 2.

To do so in their first game of the series without Devin Booker (mild right hamstring strain) is an accomplishment, and the fact is this Pelicans team has a way of making the Suns really, really earn every victory. That’s unlike the Denver Nuggets in the second round last year and more like the Western Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Clippers.

Instead of us seeing a comeback of the 64-win juggernaut like I wrongly predicted in this space for Game 3, it seems like the standards will just have to be recalibrated for now.

To that point, the Suns have shown improvement in a few key areas of the series. New Orleans’ second-chance points by game have dropped from 29 to 15 to seven.

“It’s just been something we feel like has to be a point of focus every game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after practice on Saturday. “Tomorrow we have to be even better.”

And after leakouts were such a huge issue in Game 2, that was cleaned up. The Pelicans still managed 18 fastbreak points on Friday but those were situations you would live with. Not the inexcusable buckets New Orleans had previously racked up that felt free.

The only real effort or mental mistakes were with fouling, something Williams mentioned as an area the Suns need to have a better understanding for going forward. Phoenix gave away a handful of points by fouling when New Orleans was in the bonus.

Offensively, there’s not much hardcore analysis to get through here besides play better and put ball in hoop more.

Outside of Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, no one played all that well on offense in Game 3. For some of the supporting cast, part of that is surely how Pelicans head coach Willie Green runs a lot of the same stuff on both ends that Williams does.

As forward Mikal Bridges explained on Saturday, that can get complicated

“Just on both ends knowing how to guard it,” Bridges said. “That’s I think the biggest thing, and knowing how they’re playing it. You know all the reads, so whatever defense we switch up, we both know the reads for each one so it’s kind of tough but it’s cool too.”

He went further in explaining how it becomes layered in counters to the counter.

You could sort of see that with the way the Suns themselves generated open 3s.

There is tons of optimism to find in the Suns winning Game 3 despite a 4-of-26 (15.4%) mark from 3-point range.

There’s even more of it when you take a look at the shots the Suns were missing.

“Just felt like we got so many open looks out of what we do,” Williams said. “It wasn’t off-the-dribble open looks. It was 0.5, passes keying open looks for us and we just missed a ton of shots. I thought the mental toughness that we showed to not allow that to mess with our energy or our defense really helped us.”

Going back through the Suns’ 22 misses, outside of one quick toss by Cam Payne in semi-transition and some end-of-clock situations, it was a lot of great, open looks that didn’t go down.

That was thanks to the Suns staying with an aggressive, shoot-first mentality and sticking with their ball movement principles.

“Thought the ball movement helped us,” Williams said. “When you don’t have Book on the floor, we have to rely on guys who typically don’t have the ball as much to make plays. I thought that was decent last night and we’re going to have to be even better tomorrow.”

The most notable takeaway is that only three of the Suns’ 26 attempts were from the corner, which is more or less par for the course against playoff defenses that try and take the easiest 3s away.

Those misses you saw are from guys who shoot roughly league average or better from above the break, a.k.a. not the corner. That includes Jae Crowder (34%), Cam Johnson (41%) and Landry Shamet (35%), per Cleaning the Glass.

“You know how basketball goes,” Johnson said Saturday. “You don’t miss ’em all forever, you don’t make ’em all forever. It’s the reality of the game. You just gotta be prepared to knock the next one down.”

Phoenix wants those shots, and as you can see, they went back to the same play a few times to get that wide-open look on the wing for the shooter that’s releasing out there. That’s the Spain pick-and-roll, a go-to in many NBA offenses that the Suns have mastered when it comes to how many wrinkles and variations they have woven into the play.

The misfires from deep for Chris Paul once again came off the dribble in situations when the Pelicans preferred for him to shoot.

That invitation to shoot, as Paul called it after Game 1, backfired for New Orleans but has paid off in the past two games to have him shoot 3-of-12 from deep.

Two of those were inconsequential heaves, but it’s clear that Green is willing to let Paul beat his team that way. I would guess one of the reasons why is because if Paul is missing, the Pelicans can get out in transition more.

Paul has traditionally been a great 3-point shooter with pull-ups. He was at 37.2% in his first year with Phoenix and clocked in a 35.8% knockdown rate in Oklahoma City the season prior.

This year, however, he shot just 30.2% on them and Green is making sure his defense always forces Paul left, the direction he does not prefer to go in when he’s shooting.

In every other part of the floor, Paul has been killing the Pelicans, feasting on the drop coverage New Orleans puts starting center Jonas Valanciunas in. He checked out in crunch time for backup Larry Nance Jr. to function as a switcher but Paul has made quick work of him too.

That eventually led to the Pelicans just outright doubling Paul, which, as you can see by the open 3 Johnson got in the clips of the misses, the Suns would be able to expose it. There is never really a good or right answer to stopping Paul.

With that in mind, the wildcard there is blitzing and trapping Paul on ball screens, an easier task for the Pelicans to achieve while Booker remains out.

After the Suns beat New Orleans in November, Paul said that he used to tell his former teammate and assistant coach Green that if he was coaching against himself, he’d probably run a trap. Sure enough, Paul was trapped right away in that game.

Green, though, has barely gone there through three games of the series. Whatever the reason is for not doing it so far has to be a good one, whether it’s his team’s lack of execution with that specific scheme or how he knows the Suns are usually able to break it down.

Whatever the case may be, I doubt Green is going to allow Paul to have the ball to dictate crunch time again after Paul in those moments has decided the fate of two games already.

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