DAN BICKLEY

Suns missed an opportunity to take pressure off in loss to Pelicans

Apr 7, 2024, 6:44 PM | Updated: Apr 8, 2024, 7:22 am

Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and Drew Eubanks...

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives to the basket against Kevin Durant #35 and Drew Eubanks #14 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Footprint Center on April 07, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The Suns have tested our patience. They have stretched the range of our emotions, from exhilaration to disgust. Nothing will come easy on their road to championship or bust.

A 113-105 loss to the Pelicans on Sunday was just the latest proof.

“One at a time,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “Just win the next game. That’s our mindset for the next four. And wherever we land in the standings, we’ll be OK.”

There was much on the line at Footprint Center. There was a chance to build real momentum, feeding a belief that the Suns had finally found something entering the final week of the season. That, somehow, they had finally unlocked their true identity with just five games remaining.

There was a golden chance to unofficially escape the perils of the play-in tournament. The Suns hold the tiebreaker against the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings, and a victory on Sunday would’ve effectively put a top six seed in the icebox.

Didn’t happen. And now our NBA team is back to living on the edge, back to being a cliffhanger.

After the Suns posted a strong opening quarter, the Pelicans upped their physicality and defensive intensity. They badgered Kevin Durant into the worst plus/minus rating of all 10 starters. They snapped Devin Booker’s string of three consecutive performances of 50 more points against the Pelicans. They held the Suns bench to seven points.

They took home a much-needed victory with a heavy dose of physicality and intensity that clearly agitated the Suns. Jose Alvarado reprised his role as a sticky nuisance, a role he played to near-perfection against the Suns in their playoff matchup two seasons ago.

After the game, Vogel again lamented the uncalled fouls against his basketball team. But they better get used to it. It’s exactly what the Suns will face from their opponent and the officials once the playoffs begin.

The Suns entered the game on something of a roll, showing the kind of dominance that makes them such a frightening playoff opponent. They had improved tremendously in transition defense and attention to detail. They had held six of their previous nine opponents to 106 points or fewer, actually resembling a very good defensive team.

That cohesion/connectivity frayed apart against the Pelicans. C.J. McCollum caught fire in the second period yet was never defended with any sense of urgency. Same with Alvarado, even after he drained five three-point shots. The energy and urgency to close out on shooters was once again AWOL. And once the game became a back-alley fight, Zion Williamson was easily the best player on the floor, dominating on both ends.

“They wanted it a little more than we did,” said Bradley Beal, who was outstanding for most of his 33-point performance.

A lack of urgency? Again? At this point?

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” Beal said. “Why it wasn’t there, I don’t know. I think we were energetic enough to win the game … but you could see they had a little more fight.”

In the end, the Pelicans made plays and the Suns couldn’t make shots. As Durant said, it’s a make-or-miss league. But they also missed a huge opportunity to win a home game and take tremendous pressure off the final week of the season.

Instead, the Suns chose the hard way. As usual.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

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