EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Pelicans continue making Suns look unrecognizable in Phoenix loss

Apr 24, 2022, 11:30 PM | Updated: Apr 25, 2022, 12:22 am
Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns reacts during the second half of Game Four of the Western Confe...
Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns reacts during the second half of Game Four of the Western Conference First Round against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on April 24, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS — A 14-6 run doesn’t sound like much, but the way the Phoenix Suns closed the first half against the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 4 Sunday bordered on feeling like a turning point in the entire series.

Phoenix scratched and clawed to get a two-point lead by playing its brand of basketball, which has been mostly non-existent in the matchups with the Pelicans. A semblance of momentum wasn’t self-generated by one or two incredible individual performances, and that was a new development for this series. Perhaps this is when we would see the best team in the world from the regular season.

Nope.

Once again, New Orleans proved it has the Suns’ number by throwing off the composure and tempo of a 64-win team from the regular season. It used that to win Game 4, 118-103, and tie the series up at two games apiece.

“They for sure played with more urgency and grit than we did tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “I told the guys that. We played hard but they played much harder. That’s just a fact.”

Since the Suns’ terrific defensive effort in the first half of Game 1, Phoenix just isn’t able to string together a great stretch of team basketball that lasts longer than a few minutes. Whether it’s uncharacteristic turnovers, open 3s not falling or stupid fouls, a lack of explosive offensive spurts without Devin Booker (mild right hamstring strain) and continual poor shooting from 3-point range plague the Suns.

Booker’s absence is not the why. It is the heaviest contributing factor, but we saw inklings of this in Game 2 before Booker’s injury. Phoenix all season has played together to overcome shorthanded situations, but the magic that made that happen has disappeared quicker than the job a cheap sleight of hand trick would have done.

The way in which the Pelicans engage physically seems to be the defining factor. New Orleans has dictated the series through that and sheer hustle.

“I think the label on the series is whoever gets the 50/50 balls, gets to the spot first (and) doesn’t give up the effort plays is typically coming out the winner,” Williams said.

The Suns, a team that embraces a contact-heavy series just as much as anyone, haven’t been able to figure out how to match it the right way.

“It’s like the old NBA, ain’t it?” point guard Chris Paul said. “I asked one of the refs one time, I said, ‘We playing the old NBA or the new NBA?’ I was fortunate enough to play in both of them. We just gotta figure out which one it’s gonna be (each night). Regardless, whatever it is, we gotta be able to adjust earlier in the game.”

Forward Cam Johnson described it well. The Suns are having a tricky time finding the, as center Deandre Ayton called it, “legal physicality.”

“The way they attack you is, you gotta find the physicality, the borderline physicality with how you can guard (Brandon) Ingram and (C.J.) McCollum and then keeping them off the boards. … We gotta match that physicality and figure out the ways in which that physicality can turn our way,” Johnson said.

Nothing is more indicative of that being the case than the free-throw numbers.

The Pelicans were 32-of-42 at the foul line, easily topping the Suns’ 10-for-15 mark. Phoenix was using active hands as always defensively and reaching in for strips often, actions that were earning foul calls all night. Paul got a technical foul and we even saw a rare one out of Williams.

Williams was upset about the disparity.

“I’m gonna say this: 42-15 in free throws,” Williams said. “You can slice it any way you want to. In a playoff game that physical, that’s amazing. Coaches shouldn’t have to come up to the microphone and feel like they’re gonna get their heads cut off for speaking the truth. It was 17-2 in the first half and then they end up with 42.

“That’s hard to do in a game like that, and it’s not like we don’t attack the basket. That’s really hard to do. Look, they outplayed us, they deserve to win. That’s a free-throw disparity that you have to look at.”

Phoenix’s 56 points in the paint are a good indicator of how the Suns were attacking to get in positions to draw fouls. Then again, Phoenix has been bad at getting to the line since last year. It was 29th in free-throw rate each of the last two seasons while the Pelicans were sixth this year. None of that should determine where the right and wrong are in the result on Sunday except the tape on each call, but it has been a part of the game Phoenix has struggled in for two years.

The Pelicans won the third quarter, 35-23, helping maintain their dominance of that period in this series, which now is 137-93 and an area of emphasis for the Suns pregame. Phoenix kept crawling back into the game to get within a few possessions. And every time, New Orleans shoved the Suns back and extended its lead.

The last instance of this would come at 8:03 remaining when the Suns got within four. New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas scored in the post and then a 3-point attempt run of a Paul miss, Valanciunas make and Johnson miss led to a tip-in putback by Valanciunas. On the Suns’ following possession, Jae Crowder threw an inbounds pass right to the Pelicans’ Herb Jones, who converted on a layup that he was fouled on, a call that was upgraded to a Flagrant 1 on Paul.

When the dust cleared, it was a 14-point Pelicans edge they’d ride to the win.

Earlier in the quarter, Paul of all people got an eight-second violation due to the pestering by Pelicans rookie Jose Alvarado.

It was less of a meltdown and more just like the Suns had snapped. The belief Pelicans head coach Willie Green had created in his team for Game 2 has been a tidal wave that has destroyed the identity we’ve seen the 64-win Suns play through all season.

Until Phoenix finds that, like it briefly did in the closing stages of the first half, it is in big, big trouble.

Ingram has been the star in both of the Pelicans’ wins. He had 30 points, five assists and one turnover. His stellar play in the third quarter especially was the catalyst for the Pelicans taking over the game.

Green shifted his rotation to get Valanciunas, the starting center, against the Suns’ JaVale McGee in an effort to find Valanciunas some rhythm for the first time in the series — and boy did it work. Valanciunas was terrific with 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and one turnover. He got the better of Ayton after he was heavily outclassed in Games 1 and 3.

Jones was the man defensively with three blocks and two steals to go with 13 points.

Phoenix shot 7-of-27 (25.9%) from deep to post a brutal conversion rate for the second straight game. Unlike Game 3, there was no star showing from Ayton or Paul to make up for that. Ayton was still solid with 23 points while Paul only registered four points on 2-of-8 shooting with 11 assists — and lost his cool in the second half.

Paul was seen flexing his left hand a bit once halftime came and he didn’t look as comfortable using it in the second half. He was asked postgame about his lack of aggression scoring the ball and if everything is OK with him health-wise.

“Yeah, that’s on me. I’ll be better Game 5,” Paul said. “Gotta be. We’ll look at the film, figure it out and be better next game.”

The Suns have been here before. In a Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round last season, Booker and Crowder were ejected late in the game for acts that were similar in what they represented of Phoenix’s mental state at the time.

They bounced back, but that was against a Lakers team that was ready to fold. That is the last thing this Pelicans group is ready to do.

The Suns have homecourt in two of the series’ three potential games remaining. That’s a natural advantage but this has been an unnatural series.

For a team that gave a borderline guarantee of what you’d get from them night in and night out earlier this year, it’s impossible to expect what comes from here.

“Just three hours ago, you could have said we had the momentum,” Johnson said. “So that’s part of the playoffs, part of the deal. The mood is we still got going home, a game in a couple of days that we gotta be prepared for, we gotta be ready for.

“We’re a team that’s been in these situations. We gotta pull together and get it done. Simply put. Get it done.”

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