DAN BICKLEY

Suns suddenly in dangerous waters after Pelicans take Game 4

Apr 24, 2022, 11:11 PM | Updated: Apr 25, 2022, 12:22 am
New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Landry Shamet in...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Landry Shamet in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in New Orleans, Sunday, April 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

(AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

NEW ORLEANS — There was a Sunday night mugging outside the French Quarter. The Phoenix Suns never saw it coming.

They were Punk’d by the New Orleans Pelicans, 118-103.

They were badly rattled in the second half. The referees got in their heads.

The pesky Jose Alvarado agitated Chris Paul until the Point God lost his way and his cool. The rabid crowd at the Smoothie King Center tilted the game just like they do for the Saints across the street in the Superdome.

Clearly, the Suns have lost a big chunk of their soul without Devin Booker. But they shouldn’t look this bad. They shouldn’t be coming apart at the seams.

Now, we have a series. And the tension is rising.

Before his postgame press conference began, Suns head coach Monty Williams stared at the box score in disgust, as if he were looking at an eviction notice. He bit his tongue for a moment.

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

But then Williams snapped, just like his team did earlier in the evening. He ripped into the officiating crew and the free throw disparity (42-15 in favor of the Pelicans) following a very physical game. He said NBA head coaches shouldn’t have to step in front of a microphone and “fear getting their heads cut off for telling the truth.” He called the discrepancy “hard to swallow.”

Williams generally resists this kind of tactic, aware that his team often gets distracted and obsessed by NBA officials. But this was different.

Williams sounded deeply frustrated, maybe even a bit fearful. And he still wasn’t done as he walked out of the interview room.

“It’s a joke,” he said. “Forty-two free throws …”

The Suns have plenty of other issues.

They are struggling for potency. Too many open shots aren’t falling. Cam Payne has been Cam Payne-ful.

They’ve struggled mightily in the third quarter against this opponent. And twice in this series, they’ve lost their cutthroat composure that made them so invincible in clutch-time minutes. Paul took full responsibility and vowed to be better in Game 5.

But without Booker, this series suddenly feels fraught with danger. And it’s becoming clear that the Suns are as villainous as they are victorious.

At the end of a Game 3 loss to the Suns, a chunk of Pelicans fans began chanting “(Expletive) Chris Paul!” The sentiments were shocking, as Paul spent the first six seasons of his career playing in New Orleans. Paul brushed off the reaction, calling the fan base “my people.”

But they were back at it again on Sunday night. And when Jae Crowder got under their skin for drawing yet another flop foul, the Pelicans crowd began chanting “(Expletive) Jae Crowder” in unison. It was the loudest display of vulgarity you’ll ever hear at professional sporting event.

Many NBA arenas have become tinder boxes of hate. The lack of civility currently defining our country is spilling into the playground of sports. After fining Kevin Durant $25,000 for cussing out Dallas fans and docking Kyrie Irving $50,000 for profanity and middle fingers directed at Celtics fans, I’m sure NBA commissioner Adam Silver won’t be pleased about the chants coming out of the Big Easy over the weekend.

But it’s also indicative of how unlikeable the Suns have become for many opposing fan bases, a team that dances during pre-game warmups, plays with a ton of swagger and features a subset of star players who know all the tricks and loopholes when hunting for fouls.

Even if they didn’t arrive on Sunday. And now comes a Game 5, the kind that many of us never expected.

“Not everything goes your way every time,” Cam Johnson said. “If it did, you wouldn’t need to play the game.”

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

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