We should have seen the slow start coming from a mile away in the Pelicans’ 110-99 loss to the Suns in the opening game of this first-round playoff series.
New Orleans was playing their third game in five days, with the first two consisting of mentally and physically draining do-or-die contests. Meanwhile, Phoenix entered this game with a whole week of rest from competitive hoops.
The level of preparation and energy from the best team in basketball was apparent from tip-off. The Suns were crisp in their execution on both ends of the court; the Pelicans couldn’t even knock down open field goal attempts.
The Pelicans shot 4-of-18 on *uncontested* shots in the first half.— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) April 18, 2022
The Pelicans made only 11 of 49 field goals in the first half. That translates to a 22.4 percentage. The bench mustered just one made shot (a Jose Alvarado 3), missing on their nine other attempts.
At halftime, the deficit stood at 53-34. But New Orleans didn’t quit.
“We just didn’t catch up to their physicality until the second half,” Willie Green said postgame. “Once we did, we were able to get some good looks, but we have to do better at starting games. We got down early and now we’re digging ourselves out of a hole. That’s tough.”
The Pelicans won the third quarter by a 37-26 margin, reducing the gap to eight points on the scoreboard. The reserves, aka The Second Line, were responsible for 18 of those points.
New Orleans’ good offense continued into the final frame, but unfortunately, Chris Paul flipped that switch he possesses and took over the game, showing us what he’s been doing for years.
The Point God scored 17 of the Suns’ 19 points through the first six minutes of the fourth, picking up an assist to JaVale McGee to account for the other two points. With the Pelicans trailing 99-85, Ja Morant said it best on Twitter.
CP took over this game . ‼️ he so cold— Ja Morant (@JaMorant) April 18, 2022
While the Pelicans had found a battle plan in this second half, the deficit was too much to overcome as New Orleans couldn’t slow the Suns, well CP3, down enough.
CJ McCollum, who made just 4 of 17 field goals through the first three quarters, got hot in the fourth to finish with 25 points, adding eight rebounds, six assists and three triples.
Brandon Ingram wasn’t immune to the cold shooting, knocking down 6 of 17 field goal attempts for 18 points. He also contributed five rebounds and four assists but had five turnovers as well.
Jonas Valanciunas was a monster on the glass, grabbing 25 rebounds to break Anthony Davis’ record in franchise history for boards in a playoff game; however, like CJ and BI, JV struggled immensely from the field, converting only 7 of 21 field goal attempts, to finish with 18 points.
Credit the Suns’ interior defense. It was outstanding. With Deandre Ayton leading the way, Phoenix blocked nine Pelican shots. New Orleans missed a slew of other attempts in the lane —especially in the first half — thanks to the length, activity and physicality of the Suns.
“We made the adjustment that we knew the game was going to be physical,” Green said. “They had their hands on us, which means that we have to play faster. We have to get into the paint. We have to crash the glass — all the things that we did, but we have to make some shots.”
The Pelicans grabbed 25 offensive rebounds, with Valanciunas’ 13 standing out the most in the boxscore. The team turned those boards into 29 second chance points.
Larry Nance Jr. (14 points, six rebounds, three assists) and Trey Murphy III (six points, four rebounds, two threes) also contributed on the glass, and it was clear the team functioned better when they were on the court.
With Jaxson Hayes struggling to produce anywhere on the floor for some time now, let’s hope the coaching staff strongly considers on making a change. Inserting Murphy into the starting lineup would open up the floor for the rest of the group. Ingram saw two and three bodies routinely tonight. As did McCollum. In addition, Trey’s a better rebounder than Jaxson at this point.
Chris Paul scored a game-high 30 points, adding 10 assists, seven rebounds, four threes and three steals for the Suns. He was poetry in motion. Devin Booker, his backcourt running mate, got hot early and finished with 25 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four threes.
As Antonio Daniels stated on the Bally Sports New Orleans broadcast, the Pelicans figured out some things in the second half. Not only did they overcome the jitters and match Phoenix’s physicality, they found an effective offensive strategy: not spacing the offense out wide along the perimeter but moving it down and closer to the rim. This didn’t allow for the Suns to cover boxes and elbows like they did throughout the first half.
“The one thing we that is encouraging was that we cut the lead to six shooting 33% from the field,” Green said. “We have some work to do. That’s a really good team. We have to come back and be better.”
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