The Pelicans are kicking off their first-round series against the Suns tonight.
I’m still walking around in half-disbelief about there even being a game #1 to cover.
The focus was on just making the Play-in Tournament for weeks. Then all hopes swayed to the team maintaining a hold of ninth in the West so that New Orleans could host a game inside the Smoothie King Center. But within a span of a 36 hours, the Pelicans sent the Spurs and Clippers packing, and of needing to catch a flight to Phoenix.
So, Willie Green’s catch-phrase of “You gotta fight!” definitely remains the motto for now.
The challenge sitting before the Pelicans is an immense one. The Suns made it to the NBA Finals in the last campaign. They appear to have taken another step forward, improving upon their regular season win percentage and key advanced stats. In addition to adding another year of experience of playing together under their belts, their main core is entering this postseason healthy.
On top of all their goodness, they’ve seen New Orleans four times, beaten the Pels in three of those contests, and are going up against a very familiar offense and defense.
“Our teams are very similar,” Green said after yesterday’s practice. “We run the same offense, pretty much the same defense. It’s going to come down to what team can execute the best. One thing I know about Monty Williams and his crew and his team, they’re going to be ready.”
The New Orleans head coach is absolutely right. One of the keys to this series is going to be which team values every possession more. The Suns are a good-shooting team that doesn’t turn the ball over. And during crunch-time, no group is more reliable than Phoenix’s.
The Pelicans must play their most-focused basketball of the season, and shooting lights out wouldn’t hurt either, especially with oddsmakers listing the Pelicans as 10.5-point underdogs less than eight hours before tip-off.
New Orleans won 17 of 24 games during the regular season when shooting 39% from three-point range or higher. That record ticks up to 18-7 if counting the 113-103 play-in win over the Spurs where the Pelicans shot 40% from deep.
Here’s three other things that need to happen for New Orleans to improve their chances of stealing game #1:
- Jonas Valanciunas has to win his matchup against DeAndre Ayton. Ayton is better than Ivica Zubac. The Suns would prefer to keep their starting center on the floor. So Valanciunas needs to take advantage of these non-small-ball minutes, and if the regular season is any indication (averages of 20.8 points and 14.8 in the four matchups), there’s a good chance of success for JV.
- The Suns bench finished with the best plus-minus, outscoring opponents by 131 points on the season. However, they haven’t been as effective since the All-Star break. In the second half of the season, the Pelican reserves (5th) proved a bigger difference maker than their first-round opponent (16). This discrepancy needs to continue. It would behoove Green to dole out the majority of the bench minutes to Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy and Larry Nance.
- CJ McCollum and/or Brandon Ingram need to strive to be the best player on the floor. Talent is a great equalizer and the Pelicans have two guys who can score 25+ points any given night. Both are also very good playmakers. If the Suns wind up forcing Jaxson Hayes and other role players out of their comfort zones, it could make for a long night for New Orleans.
The Pelicans are enormous underdogs, but that’s fine. The education of this experience was always going to be the main benefit derived. It should do wonders for their development, both individually and as a team. This holds true for Zion Williamson as well, who is expected to be glued to the sidelines.
I don’t have many expectations, but I strongly believe these Pelicans are not going to get smashed four times in this series. They’ve been among the top 10 teams in offense and defense since the All-Star break. They have a strong starting lineup. The bench has been effective. And while he’s still learning on the job, Willie Green usually knows how to get the most from his team.
LET’S GEAUX PELS!
When: April 17, 2022, 8:00 p.m.
Where to watch: TNT
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM