EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul’s latest closeout masterpiece advances Suns past Pelicans

Apr 28, 2022, 10:29 PM | Updated: Apr 29, 2022, 5:00 am
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball over Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the New Orleans Pel...
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball over Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on April 28, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS — Game 4 in the second round last year against the Denver Nuggets. Game 6 of last season’s Western Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Clippers.

And now Game 6 of the 2022 first round in New Orleans facing the Pelicans gets added to the list of Chris Paul masterpieces for the Phoenix Suns in closeout games.

Paul set an NBA playoff record by making his first 14 shots and didn’t miss in a 115-109 Suns victory on Thursday that won his team the series, 4-2.

The victory earned Phoenix a matchup against Dallas Mavericks in the second round. Game 1 of the series is on Monday.

They earned that next series after Paul wound up with 33 points and eight assists to go with the perfect shooting. He was the usual deadly puppet master in the game’s largest moments.

“I just know that great players have a knack for that,” head coach Monty Williams said of Paul. “They know when to and when not to. The game slows down for them, slower than it does for everybody else.”

In an incredible overall game, the Pelicans made sure it was going to take some type of heroics like that to get eliminated after one of the best first-round performances from an eight seed in recent memory.

“This is not an eight seed,” Williams said, crediting first-year New Orleans coach and former Suns assistant Willie Green. “No way. If you look at their record after the trade and the progression of Willie’s program, you wouldn’t grade that as an eight seed.”

New Orleans had this uncanny ability the past two weeks to not only stifle the Suns’ rhythm but outwork them too.

That trend continued in the first half, one in which the Suns again were seemingly unable to secure a defensive rebound and lost all semblance of offensive flow across a disastrous second quarter, even with the return of Devin Booker after he missed three games because of his right hamstring. They had a season-low eight points in the paint, gave up 36 and got destroyed in other elements of the game like second-chance (14-0) and fastbreak points (13-2).

“We talked at halftime about the spirit of our team,” Williams said. “I had a few personal things to say to the team. [The Pelicans] were playing with their heart and just playing harder than us. And it was like, every time we win a game in this series, the next game we come into it and just didn’t have the same juice. And it was like, enough is enough.”

Phoenix was honestly lucky to be down only 10 at halftime, and the third quarter loomed — the Pelicans were +46 in third quarters over the first five games.

That’s when the Suns produced one of their best responses in the Williams era.

Not only did Phoenix win the third quarter for the first time in the series, but it finally managed a real offensive spurt, a basic part of basketball that all teams do that was suddenly a massive chore for the Suns against New Orleans. A 17-6 surge in the first six minutes of the second half led by Paul put the Suns up one.

Almost as importantly, Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum picked up three fouls in that stretch to amount to five total, requiring him to sit from the 6:55 mark of the third quarter to 6:05 remaining.

From there, it was tremendous basketball filled with tons of shotmaking. New Orleans still led by three entering the fourth quarter despite the absence of its point guard. Big shots from rookies Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy III kept them on track.

A dizzying segment of six straight baskets for the two combined teams in the mid-fourth quarter left the Suns down one.

Paul followed two consecutive midrange jumpers in there with a floater two minutes later that were the only points scored across a three-plus minute gap. The Suns’ defense in that stretch included a Mikal Bridges steal and Jae Crowder block, a team effort that should be included on the list of reasons that won Phoenix this game.

But it all comes back to Paul, who manipulated the Pelicans’ defense to find Deandre Ayton for an open lob and then somehow tricked New Orleans into leaving Booker open on the strong-side corner for a gigantic 3.

“He was on that left wing,” Paul said of the play. “And I don’t know if they forgot, didn’t realize who it was but I looked over and saw how they was shifted and that was probably the biggest shot of the game.”

Ten seconds later, McCollum was trapped by Ayton and Bridges. Bridges snatched the ball away, and as Williams running up the sideline suggested, he took off and dunked home the biggest basket of the game to put the Suns up four at 1:28 left on the clock.

“I wouldn’t call it a sprint,” Williams said when asked of his sprint up the sidelines. “Don’t have enough cartilage in my knee to sprint. In an environment like this, all we have is us. And I was just out there with him.

“I could see what he was doing, he got the ball and then I made an attempt at a jaunt. A bad attempt. But I was just so happy that he made that play.”

Paul drew a shooting foul for Phoenix’s next trip down and answered a Pelicans bucket with an isolation score on McCollum during which the Pelicans shockingly didn’t double team him.

That was the next nail in the coffin before Booker’s free throws while being fouled up three with under 20 seconds remaining hammered them into place.

In totality, the Suns scored 67 points in the second half, a 24 minutes that finally awoke the best team in the world from its slumber just in time for the Western Conference semifinals.

On top of Paul’s 14-for-14 night, Ayton started the game 6-for-6 before missing his first shot and ended the night at 10-of-12 with 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

Ayton played 40 minutes and did deserve some of the blame for the Pelicans’ inexcusable offensive rebounding in the first half, but he had another excellent offensive game and still made some key defensive plays.

Booker wound up at 32 minutes, eight too many to Williams’ liking. And that was after Williams sat him to start the second half so Booker could finish the game, a move that drew eye contact from Booker. Wiliams jokingly said he “thought we were going to have a fist fight.”

Booker was clearly well below 100%, never really fully exerting himself off the dribble to drive to the basket or take on potential transition opportunities. Williams was keeping an eye on all that stuff and liked how Booker didn’t push the hamstring too far. The head coach didn’t see Booker laboring at all, so he was OK with keeping him in longer than previously planned.

“I tested it, got some good work in yesterday and knew the adrenaline was going to kick in and it was time to go,” Booker said.

While Booker wasn’t himself, his presence was still a big benefit to the team. He had 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and came up clutch on a handful of defensive rotations, including a 1-on-1 stop of Brandon Ingram with 1:15 to go.

For the second straight game, the Pelicans’ stars didn’t look like such offensively, a credit to the physical battle the Suns put those two through all series. Ingram and McCollum combined for 37 points on 35 shots. Williams made the key adjustment in the second half of trapping Ingram that took away a lot of his momentum.

The traps on Ingram opened up opportunities for the Pelicans’ stellar three rookies and they all were once again great. Herb Jones registered 16 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals while Alvarado added 11 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals. Murphy was 4-of-7 from 3 for 12 points.

Bridges added 18 points for the Suns, putting in another strong showing after his masterful Game 5.

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