EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns show much better fight, still fall to Pelicans in OT

Dec 11, 2022, 5:01 PM
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) shoots against New Orleans Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) in...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) shoots against New Orleans Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Phoenix Suns had their two best quarters in a while on Sunday, an encouraging development after playing their worst quality of basketball this season across three losses.

But that and a scrappy effort to force overtime still weren’t enough to get a win in a 129-124 final against the New Orleans Pelicans.

It is the Suns’ fourth straight loss, the team’s first time doing that in the regular season since March 2020, three Suns games before the world stopped.

Phoenix’s first half was a sorely needed response. It led 58-57 after grabbing 10 offensive rebounds, forcing 10 Pelicans turnovers and winning the points in the paint battle 36-24 after getting destroyed in it 72-38 on Friday.

It is Example No. 37290472 that the Suns’ system and brand of basketball when executed correctly works no matter who is in or out, as Devin Booker missed Sunday’s contest because of left hamstring tightness. Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton all had great halves, reminding us what it looks like when the Suns’ best players are, well, playing well.

But New Orleans, as it did in the second quarter on Friday, came out with the required response in the third quarter on Sunday.

A 13-2 run extended the Pelicans’ lead from two to 13 and was fueled by a pair of bad Suns turnovers.

Phoenix didn’t fold, though, another indicator of progress.

A 16-8 close to the last 3:03 of the third quarter got the game back within five, a margin that would more or less hold all the way until the game’s closing moments thanks to a Suns 13-2 run in the mid-fourth quarter.

That is where we got our latest update on if we will see the Point God, who still deserves a bit more time to rediscover himself after missing 14 games and just coming back on Wednesday.

With just under 150 seconds remaining in a tie game, Paul was still deferring in moments he would normally dominate. His passes and the offense run within them were good but it’s Paul we’re talking about, who can shoot over anyone. He doesn’t look like he’s able to create consistent separation right now in isolations, nor rise up on the pull-up jumpers that were unguardable no matter how good the contest was from the defender.

That brought on two different Suns turnovers over that stretch and a missed Damion Lee 3, creating nearly enough separation for the Pelicans to win via the foul game.

But then New Orleans’ Naji Marshall missed one of his two free throws at 13 seconds remaining to have the Suns trailing by two, and Paul finally did what he is an all-time great at, getting to his spot.

That brought on overtime, where the Suns were already in a rough spot because Ayton fouled out. It got worse when Paul at 2:52 left down three got his own sixth foul after trying to draw a shooting foul by sticking his leg out.

It was originally ruled in Paul’s favor before New Orleans’ challenge overturned the call and disqualified Paul. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the Pelicans ran away with it from there.

Paul’s first quarter was the best he had looked this year so far in terms of puppeteering the pace of a game and keeping the offense humming. Him showing that element of his game was a really good sign for the Suns, even though the typical scoring takeover in crunch time was still absent. He finished with six points (3-of-10), three rebounds and 11 assists.

Those types of performances have been particularly special because it can negate superstar showings like Zion Williamson’s on Sunday, as his reign of terror over the last month continued.

Williamson’s line of 35 points, eight rebounds and three assists followed his nearly identical 35-7-4 on Friday. He said after Friday’s win this matchup meant more to him after watching his team lose in the playoffs without him. You could see Williamson in both games, a normally unassuming guy, carrying himself with more attitude and bravado. As a basketball fan, it’s cool to see him turning that corner all generational players eventually do if they haven’t already.

The Suns deployed an aggressive defensive coverage on Williamson, something they rarely do in the regular season. Double teams and extra help were sent Williamson’s way regularly, with the occasional trap triggered on both him and C.J. McCollum as well. It’s a playoff-style level of defending that is taxing but the Suns were ready to employ that effort.

Dario Saric started in place of Booker, allowing Ayton to defend Williamson, a matchup he fared well with it.

All that didn’t impact Williamson too much, a testament to the form he’s found right now.

Ayton was awesome. His 28 points, 12 rebounds and five assists was arguably his best performance of the season when factoring in how consistently direct he was with his dribble and sealing for position, plus the job he did on a unique matchup with Williamson that gave the Suns a chance.

Bridges scored 19 of his 27 points in the first half, a new career high. He added five rebounds, three assists and two steals on 10-of-23 shooting, a new career best for shot attempts.

Payne got rolling in the second half to end up with 17 points and three assists.

The Pelicans, the NBA’s deepest team in my opinion, were still able to get a handful of key contributions without Brandon Ingram (toe) and Herb Jones (ankle).

McCollum provided 29 points, the bench brought 17 points via Marshall and got another stat-stuffing night from Larry Nance Jr. of 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.

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