EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Pelicans matchups may be Suns’ last chance at top-6 playoff spot

Mar 31, 2024, 4:06 PM | Updated: 7:55 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots over Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans and ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots over Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicansduring the third quarter of an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on January 19, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Despite how many games the 43-31 Phoenix Suns have dropped that they should have won against opponents that were both inferior and shorthanded, they still are afforded the luxury of controlling their fate.

A spot in the play-in tournament is more likely by the day. The fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers are at 27 losses with eight games left. Tied for fifth are the red-hot Dallas Mavericks, who won their seventh straight on Sunday to move to 45-29 with a very light schedule. Both those teams look to be uncatchable.

The 45-29 record is the same as the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix’s matchup on Monday and again the following Sunday. Because of that, if it beats New Orleans in both it will be in theory even on losses, and the wins would give it the tiebreaker. The Suns would still have to win at least three of the other six contests to have a shot at catching the Pelicans, more likely four or five.

That seems like far too much to ask out of the Suns right now, and their last two weeks exemplified that rather well.

They followed up the embarrassing effort on national TV in Milwaukee on March 17 with two unconvincing victories in the Valley versus two Eastern Conference foes without their best players before actually producing a formulaic and straightforward win in San Antonio before dropping a shocker to the same Spurs two days later, except they were without Victor Wembanyama. The carousel kept spinning with a big-time win over the Denver Nuggets on the road, one of the Suns’ best of the year, before unraveling in the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder as soon as some real resilience was required.

But in the company of that Denver victory in terms of the best we’ve seen out of the Suns was one in New Orleans on Jan. 19.

Phoenix got 52 points from Devin Booker, 26 more out of Kevin Durant and a very good all-around Bradley Beal performance. Part of that job Beal did was as the initial defender on Zion Williamson, who the Suns held relatively in check considering they do not have any type of bulky wing that matches up to Williamson’s physical stature. The Pelicans defense had little answers for a Suns offense that produced 32 assists, eight turnovers and a 15-of-41 (36.6%) mark from 3-point range.

New Orleans, however, is a different team since then.

Ten days after that defeat, it dropped to 26-21 on the season. It is 19-8 since. Across those 28 games that cover Jan. 31 on, the Pelicans are 11th in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating.

Adding a top-five defense to their offensive firepower brings together a unit no one will want to face in the postseason.

The Athletic’s Mo Dakhil detailed how a lot of this can be attributed to Williamson and the noticeable changes since his woeful performance during the midseason tournament spawned a 48-hour news cycle about the state of his career. Williamson quietly set a new career best for games played (63), and while he’s not producing All-NBA numbers or a stat line like his second season that suggests he’s a superstar, this is the most he’s impacted winning as a NBA player.

As Dakhil breaks down with a few examples in the piece, it’s mainly just about Williamson’s commitment. His bad patterns off the ball were alarming and effort all over was often questionable. New Orleans has the personnel elsewhere to stifle teams if the weak links are eliminated, armed with one of the best wing-defending groups in basketball. Herb Jones should have been All-Defense last year and will be this year. Trey Murphy III and Naji Marshall are irritants in their own right. Williamson buying in makes that trio better by default.

Offensively, it’s again Williamson. The Pelicans are using him more as a ball-handler initiating possessions, something The Old Man & The Three Things went over back in late February. JJ Redick presented how this helps everything, particularly New Orleans’ spacing. Williamson has nine games with nine-plus assists in his career and seven have come in the calendar year 2024. It’s the best turn for how to use Williamson given his lack of shooting and how the constant pressure on the defense maximizes his value.

Speaking of the calendar year 2024, over its first three months, C.J. McCollum is attempting 8.3 triples a game and shooting 40.8%. The other high-volume guy is Murphy at eight a night and 35.8%. The rest of the supporting cast is knocking them down enough to not have a weak link. That’s Jones (3.9, 49%), Jose Alvarado (3.7, 36.1%), Jordan Hawkins (3.6, 37%) and Marshall (2.2, 37.8%). That’s a lot of shooting capable of punishing defenses, even while Brandon Ingram (left knee bone contusion) gets healthy and presents another different type of threat.

Both sides of the floor present a good litmus test for what has ailed the Suns all year. If they’re able to execute, perhaps they have uncovered some gas left in the tank for a last-minute push at a playoff position.

New Orleans’ defense will surely look to cut down the 41 3-point attempts from mid-January. The NBA average this year for attempts is 35, and when Phoenix reaches that mark, it is 16-9. That contributed to the 32 assists, and when the Suns hit that qualifier, they’re 14-1.

As far as the Pelicans offense, Phoenix’s own defense has been particularly lacking the last two months in its ability to rotate out to shooters. A proper defensive rotation as a team consisting of multiple efforts after helping in a certain direction is a rare sight. That’s what Williamson will make happen all evening.

Good luck finding your way out of the pitch-black tunnel that is this Suns season right now. Maybe after Monday there will be enough light to guide us. Or we’ll continue to blindly stumble through it toward the play-in tournament.

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