EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ Game 5 tweaks breathe life into defense, relieve Chris Paul
PHOENIX — Willie Green and the New Orleans Pelicans threw enough punches that the top-seeded Phoenix Suns found themselves reacting with the first-round series tied 2-2.
In Game 5 at Footprint Center on Tuesday, Phoenix head coach Monty Williams made a few tweaks based on what the Pelicans did a game prior.
It included a dual-center lineup featuring starting center Deandre Ayton and backup JaVale McGee, which stretched the bench to use third center Bismack Biyombo to allow for Ayton’s growing workload.
Then, perhaps because point guard Cam Payne got three fouls in three first-half minutes — he also scored seven points in that span — third-string point guard Aaron Holiday joined the backcourt in the second quarter alongside starter Chris Paul.
Phoenix won, 112-97, forcing a Game 6 in New Orleans on Thursday with a 3-2 series lead. It was backed by the defense, which held the Pelicans to 40% shooting and 5-of-25 accuracy from three.
Ayton had 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a team-best +19 plus-minus in 35 minutes splitting some of his time at power forward.
He patrolled the backside of a defense that started with Bridges hounding both C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram and ended with a full team effort.
“Having guys that can put pressure on the ball and just give our opponents a different look — that’s what coach did,” Ayton said, his eyes widening as he discussed his new role at power forward. “Felt good having two bigs out there and me popping. Felt good to not roll a little bit. Just giving different looks in the game, rebounding as well, so we can close out possessions.
“Cam Payne, just bringing that energy, man — both ends of the floor. Look like a foul or not, it don’t matter. The way how he approaches the game on that defensive end … it definitely played an effect today.”
For sure, it was a big breakthrough night for the starters. Bridges led the team with 31 points, four blocks and two steals in 47 minutes.
He called his best statistical offensive playoff game also his best defensive postseason performance.
Paul added 21 points and 11 assists in 39 minutes. Sixteen of those points came in the first half, and from there it was on Paul’s teammates to help him manage a heavy workload.
“Again, the foul trouble hurt us there,” Williams said. “I thought Landry (Shamet) did a good job of handling the ball, Mikal did it some, Cam, Jae (Crowder). I think that’s one of many ways we can play.”
Ayton scored eight of the first 14 points for the Suns, getting off a fadeaway over two defenders against a winding shot clock for his team’s first points. On defense, he switched and contested on help before departing with 5:27 left in the first quarter.
Ayton returned less than three minutes later to mirror Green using a big-big lineup by reinserting starting center Jonas Valanciunas with smaller backup Larry Nance Jr. Biyombo made his rotation debut in the series as the lone center when Nance was left as the only big on the court for New Orleans.
Just those few tweaks and some foul trouble didn’t lead to many bench minutes. Shamet led the group with 25 minutes, scoring just six points but holding up on switches and added two steals.
Of the two players entering the rotation, Holiday had a three-point make and two assists in six minutes, while Biyombo posted an assist and three fouls in eight minutes.
Defensively though, the starters and the bench combined for what Williams called the best “gameplan discipline” by the Suns so far this series. The activity didn’t wane no matter who was playing.
Phoenix forced 15 turnovers and got 23 points off those, upping the pace after struggling to find transition opportunities with so-so defense and bad defensive rebounding plaguing the team in the prior four games.
“I thought one time Biz blitzed (a ball-handler off a screen) in front of our bench,” Williams said. “The ball was deflected a number of times but it was just Biz causing havoc but we ended up getting the ball in our favor.
“I thought the physicality was there. We still haven’t won the rebounding war, but I thought (the centers’s) presence in the paint and the activity was something we needed. And Aaron gave us the same. Putting (Biyombo and Holiday) out there, you knew we were going to get toughness and activity.”
Holiday’s addition to the rotation not only gave Phoenix some shooting it’d lacked in the past few games and the start of Tuesday’s outing, but it gave the Suns another primary initiator as the Pelicans continued to pressure Paul in the backcourt and after Payne picked up three quick fouls.
That job of pressure release valve for Paul still belongs to Payne despite his struggles so far this series.
Despite several forced shots off drives, he finished with 12 points, three rebounds, two steals and six fouls in 12 minutes.
Payne still finished as a +3 despite his wild overaggressions on 4-of-10 shooting.
“He gave us a jolt when he came in,” Williams said. “If he could have stayed out of foul trouble, who knows what his night would have been like? I love his aggression. I don’t want him thinking out there … that doesn’t always lend itself to prototypical point guard play.”
The Suns also made a notable tweak with Bridges. He not only started by defending point guard McCollum but moved on to stop forward Ingram once Jae Crowder hit the bench.
The second defender for Ingram had previously been Torrey Craig, but he did not appear in the Suns’ win.