After Sunday’s 110-99 loss to the Suns, the Pelicans will try to even the series at one game apiece before returning to New Orleans and hosting a couple of contests.
It’s long been said that a playoff series doesn’t truly begin until a team loses at home. The oddsmakers do not foresee that occurring in game 2, listing the Pelicans as a 9.5-point underdog, but there are some things that New Orleans could do to put themselves in position to steal one — outside of making more shot attempts.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker cannot be allowed to pick apart New Orleans’ defense simultaneously.
In game 1, CP3 ended the Pels’ comeback hopes by dominating the fourth quarter action. In the span of six minutes, he scored 17 points and dished out an assist. Paul finished with a game-high 30 points and 10 assists. Booker, his backcourt running mate, had 25 points and eight assists. They combined to knock down 20 of 35 field goal attempts, which included eight makes from behind the 3-point line. They tallied only three turnovers in 76 minutes of action.
As Mortal Kombat fans would probably say, their performance was akin to a flawless victory.
That can’t happen again if the Pelicans are to have any real chance of pulling off the upset tonight.
Herb Jones guarded Paul for the majority of game 1. Jose Alvarado also spent a lot of time on him. The duo combined to hold him to six points, on 3 of 5 shooting, and six assists. CP3 terrorized the rest of the Pelicans, though, for 24 points off switches or just poor choices in individual defensive assignments.
If Willie Green wants to prioritize on making Paul’s life difficult, the Pelicans must really lean into that game plan. No one guards CP3 except for Jones and Alvarado. And when the screens come, fight through them hard — don’t ever switch.
Remember the Pelicans big come-from-behind victory over the Lakers in late March? Jones and Naji Marshall stayed glued to LeBron James throughout that second half at all times. They didn’t accept switches and the rest of the Pelicans gave help until either defensive stalwart was standing back in front of James.
This logic should be applied to slowing down Paul ... or ... the Pels’ defense should put greater emphasis on limiting Booker.
The Suns proved an unstoppable force when Book scored 23 points or more, posting a 41-7 (.854) regular season record. When he was held to less that amount or was simply unavailable, Phoenix’s winning percentage was noticeable lower at 23-11 (.676).
On the other end of the floor, the Pelicans did some things well in the second half that should carry into game 2.
Once they sharpened their focus, New Orleans scored 65 points after halftime. CJ McCollum (7 of 14 shooting) and Larry Nance (5 of 6 shooting) were particularly effective. The team played with more pace and the offense did a better job of evading double or even triple teams for their two stars.
Things, however, were not perfect.
There wasn’t enough evidence of Green’s preferred point-five strategy, meaning passing, shooting or dribbling within half a second of receiving the ball. However, what particularly stood out, the ball was sticking too much in a single player’s hands.
The Pelicans’ offense operates best when the ball and players are flying around on the court. New Orleans totaled 264 passes in game 1. During the regular season, they averaged 300.3 passes. That’s too stark of a contrast.
The New Orleans roster doesn’t possess a James Harden, LeBron James or, as it was painfully obvious, a Chris Paul. The ball needs to be hopping around the court. The Suns can’t be allowed to rest Devin Booker and CP3 when guarding Jaxson Hayes and Herb Jones in the corners. Not only do all Pelicans’ wings need to be on the move much more often, they must receive touches.
Both Hayes and Jones are capable of scoring in and around the rim, or making the simple play for someone else. Naji showed in his limited minutes that he can get to the rim against the Suns. Trey Murphy needs to register more than just four shot attempts in 26 minutes.
New Orleans overcame a 1-12 start and squeezed into the playoffs from playing solid team basketball. At this point in the series, Green doesn’t want to make any changes to the rotation. So, there’s only one solution: try and play the way that got you here in the first place, Pelicans.
When: April 19, 2022, 9:00 p.m.
Where to watch: TNT
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM