The Phoenix Suns are the best team in basketball. The New Orleans Pelicans are trying to blaze a trail in the footsteps of their first-round opponent of the 2022 Western Conference playoffs.
Less than two short years ago, the Suns first made headlines by going 8-0 in the Orlando bubble. Although that magnificent run failed to materialize into a postseason bid, their success caught the eye of many onlookers, including Chris Paul’s.
The reasons that CP3 desired to join the Suns, however, went much deeper than just a handful of games.
“It’s a really good team,” Paul said in his Phoenix introductory press conference. “Everybody always says young team or whatnot, but when you’re a fan of the game, you see different pieces.
“I’ve known Book for a long time. He’s not only talented, he’s a dog. He’s really competitive. I know Book, know Book. When we hoop and play against each other, we’re about to fight.
“Looking at the staff, Monty is an unbelievable person, a human being, asides from being a great coach. There were a lot of things here.”
Paul went on to name Willie Green, James Jones, DeAndre Ayton and others as to why he felt Phoenix was a perfect destination.
A lot of this should remind New Orleans fans of what CJ McCollum said in his very first interview after arriving in the big trade deadline deal from Portland.
“A lot of young talent, man,” McCollum said after his first shootaround with the Pelicans. “Have you seen B.I. play lately? B.I.’s very good, obviously. Willie’s a great coach — I heard nothing but great things about him. I talked to CP; I talked to some guys who played with him or coached against him; JJ Redick, you guys probably got familiar with him, he was here for a bit. A lot of guys, you know, spoke very highly of him. Obviously, I know Griff, Trajan...Obviously, big fella in the middle, Zion. So there’s a lot of chemistry there.
“I just feel like it’s a great situation for me, as a guy who has been in the league for a long time. A guy who knows how to be a professional. Obviously, I know how to lead, I know how to follow and how to play a lot of different roles. I feel like this is a really great place for me to move on.”
McCollum, like Paul, handpicked his current team for a multitude of factors, but above all else, he envisioned a bright future. Willie Green echoed the same opinion months earlier, even referencing the Suns as a good analogy.
“This is a situation that actually reminds me a lot of Phoenix,” Green said at his introductory news conference. “Really high talented players. The staff, same thing. High character. People that love to come to work. Love to work together. We’re really close to taking the next step. I believe going into next season that’s our goal, that’s our mindset. That’s what makes us a sleeping giant. We have two young All-Stars. Putting a lot of talent around those guys and really just making this team go.”
Before jumping into the analysis, it’s interesting to note the head coaching comparison. This first-round series is a matchup between the mentor and his protege.
“Monty is a true leader, friend, brother, and I’m so grateful to have these last couple of years learning under him,” Green said. “He really took me under his wing. He helped me grow as a coach, as a man, as a person, as a father, as a husband.”
Green spending several years under Williams in Phoenix isn’t news. Neither should be the fact that they possess similar coaching demeanors and beliefs in style of play, with their team’s offense and defense looking darn near identical. One thing that stands out which hasn’t been discussed much, Green is literally stepping in the footprints of his mentor.
In Williams’ first season as head coach, he led New Orleans to the playoffs. Green, ditto. It’ll be interesting to watch if Willie can make this first-round series as competitive as Monty did against the Lakers, winning two games before bowing out to Kobe Bryant’s squad in the 2011 playoffs.
The Pelicans and Suns squared off four times during the regular season, with New Orleans walking away the victor once. However, had the Pelicans enjoyed a few stronger fourth quarters, the head-to-head battles would be viewed much differently.
Of course, that was no easy task. The CP3-led Suns finished with the most clutch wins (33) and the best clutch net rating (+33.4). They were head and shoulders better than any other team in crunch-time minutes.
In their first meeting on Nov. 2, the Pelicans enjoyed a 14-point lead with 2:10 remaining in the third quarter. Without Brandon Ingram (sore right hip) to help close out the game though, the offense stalled badly. New Orleans was outscored 46-20 to finish that contest, posting as many made field goals (six) as turnovers (six).
With Ingram available in the next meeting, the Pelicans put themselves in good position for a win. With 6:21 left in regulation, New Orleans trailed just 101-99 after two Devonte’ Graham 3-pointers. However, Chris Paul went on to orchestrate the Suns offense flawless over that last stretch, while New Orleans did not.
The third matchup occurred right out of the All-Star break and the Pelicans walloped the Suns, 117-102. McCollum and Ingram combined to score 60 points, while Booker went for 30 without Paul (right thumb avulsion fracture). This victory came during New Orleans’ best stretch where they destroyed four opponents by an average of nearly 27 points.
The Suns won the final meeting on March 15 by a 131-115 score. They shot the ball extremely well, making 18 of 34 from behind the arc, while the Pelicans had 17 turnovers, leading to 33 points for Phoenix. This should be considered the most lop-sided defeat of the season between these two teams as the Suns built a comfortable margin in the third quarter and never looked back.
The first four games of the series are scheduled to air on national tv, but those with access to the Bally Sports New Orleans channel have the option of listening to their local broadcast team, consisting of Joel Meyers, Antonio Daniels, Jen Hale, Erin Hartigan and David Wesley.
With the Pelicans finishing this season 28 games behind the Suns in the Western Conference standings, it’s no surprise that New Orleans is considered a massive underdog.
For those curious, there’s been five instances in NBA history where the No. 8 seed upset the No. 1 seed to move past the first round of the playoffs. However, since first-round series were expanded from five to seven games in 2003, it’s only happened three times.
- 2012: 76ers (8) beat the Bulls (1) in six games — Derrick Rose tore his ACL in game #1
- 2011: Grizzlies (8) beat the Spurs (1) in six games — Memphis’ Grit and Grind defense shutdown San Antonio
- 2007: Warriors (8) beat the Mavericks (1) in six games — Don Nelson small-ball!
Among 16 writers who placed a vote on ESPN, no one predicted the Pelicans would win more than a single game in this series.
As for oddsmakers, they believe the Suns will win the series in five games (Suns -2500, Pelicans +1000).
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