Brewing rivalry: Suns see similarities in rising Pelicans ahead of matchup
PHOENIX — “This is not an eight seed. 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.”
That is what Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams was correct in stating after his team was able to scratch and claw past a fearless and tough New Orleans Pelicans team in the first round of the playoffs last year.
Williams’ former lead assistant Willie Green was clearly onto something in his first year, and made so many promising steps forward with the Pelicans despite his best player Zion Williamson missing the entire season.
We saw the tower of wood and kindling in waiting, the byproduct of hiring a great young coach around a deep, versatile roster, and the mid-season acquisition of guard C.J. McCollum lit the fuse. The Suns were fortunate enough to escape New Orleans before that inferno set ablaze.
Part of that Pelicans spark is the playoff experience many first-timers got, something Williams noted on Thursday by saying it “helped them tremendously this summer.”
“It’s hard to fabricate those types of days in practice,” Williams said of the postseason. “In my opinion, you have to be in those types of environments.”
He noted how, for Phoenix, it was the bubble because of the pressure of needing to win every game for a chance.
New Orleans was in a similar spot last year.
“They had to win the play-in game to get into the playoffs,” Williams said. “Then they beat us up and almost got us. If you’re really going to shuck down the corn, man, they almost got us.”
The smoke is on the horizon and now it’s just a matter of time before we consider the Pelicans among the elite of the NBA, a journey that really begins this season. Phoenix will get its first glimpse of it on Friday at Footprint Center after getting one heck of a preview for the future in April.
New Orleans is 3-1, and while the leaderboards for team statistics come on a tiny sample size, it is excellent in the margins where great teams always are. The Pelicans prior to Thursday’s action are second in points in the paint and second-chance points, fifth in points off turnovers and 10th in fastbreak points.
Stylistically, they play in an aesthetically pleasing fashion through movement, tenacity and togetherness. Because of Green and his influence on that core DNA, it is almost like the Suns were looking in the mirror.
“If you did something to take the faces off and you watched their plays, you watched how they play, you watch some of the defensive teams, you almost see the same team,” Williams said. “I think that’s why the series was so physical and chippy because you’re out there running the same stuff at times. And they know what’s coming, you know what they’re running and it’s just like *smashes fists together*.”
Suns center Deandre Ayton co-signed that. Like Williams pointing out how Green has his own wrinkles he’s added as a coach, Ayton said there are differences in personnel like the shotmaking at 6-foot-10 that Brandon Ingram provides the Pelicans, but the basketball personalities are alike.
“Honestly, they the same team,” Ayton said, noting how McCollum is sort of like the Pelicans’ version of Suns point guard Chris Paul. “I don’t want to say that but that’s what it feels like when it comes to the players on the team. … How they play and how they approach the game, it just feel like a young and veteran core on the same page.”
It must have been pretty weird to see a near replica of the principles and sets, right?
“Whew!” Ayton exclaimed. “It feel like practice! I’m not gonna lie, it felt like scrimmage! I knew what was coming, they knew what was coming. It was just Mano a Mano to be honest. Like, you gonna get to the play, you gonna get to the spot, but what you gonna do? It’s just really guarding straight up, and that’s playoff basketball, man.”
Unfortunately, we won’t see the full weight of the Pelicans’ power just yet. Wing Brandon Ingram is in concussion protocol and won’t play while wing Herb Jones (knee) and Williamson (hip/back) are questionable. Jones and Williamson both played in New Orleans’ first three games before missing Tuesday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks.
That very well could be the Pelicans’ three most important players in the matchup. Ingram and Williamson present scoring threats from a physicality and size perspective the Suns don’t have an obvious answer for, while Jones does a lot of the dirty work in pestering Paul.
In addition, McCollum (right third PIP finger sprain), guard Jose Alvarado (low back spasms) and rookie guard Dyson Daniels (left ankle sprain) are all questionable as well.
But that doesn’t mean they are ill suited to take down Phoenix on Friday if all three sit.
New Orleans’ roster is stockpiled with talent. Even with third-year guard Kira Lewis Jr. (ACL) and rookie forward E.J. Liddell (ACL) out, two young players to keep tabs on, they still went nine deep on Tuesday with guys that either played last postseason or could this go-around.
First of all, the Pelicans still have their big rotation that presented Phoenix a whole lot of problems in the first round last year. Starting center and First Team All-Brute member Jonas Valanciunas, flanked by reserve bigs Jaxson Hayes and Larry Nance Jr., will crash the offensive glass and keep rim protection around the basket. They are, unsurprisingly, playing a part in New Orleans having the best offensive rebounding percentage in the league.
It’ll be interesting to see if Green starts Hayes like he did for the playoff series, as rock-solid third-year wing Naji Marshall got the nod on Tuesday in place of Williamson. The Suns might go big at times to counter this. Backup center Jock Landale can play the 4 and there’s also Dario Saric waiting to get a crack at some playing time.
The name we should really focus on is wing Trey Murphy III, one third of the trio of rookies alongside Jones and Alvarado that were incredibly impressive last postseason considering their experience level.
The 22-year-old Murphy is averaging 15.5 points per game in four contests and looks ready to contribute more in that department beyond his great defense and shooting.
Williams gave his impressions of the Pelicans team in one of his first answers on Thursday, and then when asked about Murphy, brought up how New Orleans is so deep he didn’t even get to Murphy at first.
“He’s more than a shooter,” Williams said of Murphy. “He reminds me a little bit of Cam in the way that people perceive Cam Johnson. They only look at Cam as a shooter. But you see him in practice, you see the plays he’s making in the game, you’re like, ‘Man, this guy has more dimensions to his game than people are giving him credit.’ And I feel the same way about Trey.”
Murphy attempted 67% of his shots last season from 3-point range. It makes sense for the guy they call Trigger Trey, which is self-explanatory when you watch him take 3s.
Take a look at that last attempt and where Murphy is standing. He’s purposefully giving himself an extra couple feet of space.
That quick release, though, can open up other parts of his game, where Murphy is diversifying his shot profile. And Murphy has been more aggressive this year at taking up those opportunities to get to the basket.
And guess what, he’s another guy that rebounds. Murphy is at seven offensive rebounds in four games.
Defensively, Williams noted how Green has the ability to play two giant, long wings like Jones (6-foot-7, seven foot wingspan) and Murphy (6-foot-8, seven foot wingspan) at the same time. Jones is already a fantastic defender and Murphy is on his way to becoming one too.
The Pelicans are going to see some serious improvements from a few of their younger players with high upside — we didn’t even get to this year’s top 10 pick Daniels that fits in perfectly with what they do — and the early returns on Murphy indicate he’s one of them.
Just in the same way we’ve seen Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson grow, we’re going to have plenty of that happening in the bayou the next couple of years, which is going to help cater to what should develop into a very fun rivalry between two sides that have a world of respect for each other.