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Pelicans-Suns Game 3 Preview: New Orleans with golden opportunity to produce further playoff noise

No Devin Booker. Playing in front of sold-out, pro-Nola crowds the next two games. There’s a window!

2022 NBA Playoffs - New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Devin Booker, who was initially reported as likely out for games 3 and 4, could miss the rest of the first-round series between the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns, per Brian Windhorst.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker has suffered a Grade 1 right hamstring strain, sources told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on Thursday.

Players with such an injury historically require approximately 14 to 21 days to recover, which would put Booker’s return during this first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans in question.

Booker sustained a right hamstring injury after attempting to thwart Jaxson Hayes in transition at the 4:46 mark of the third quarter in game 2. He immediately left the game after that instance and did not return.

The Suns posted an 8-6 regular season record without Booker in the lineup. Landry Shamet started in all 14 of his absences, putting up averages 12.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists.

Do not get fixated on that record though. When Shamet was surrounded by the other regular starters (Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton) at tip-off, the Suns went 4-1. The advanced numbers were also fans of this Devin-less starting lineup, with Phoenix still proving a tough team to beat.

Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating True Shooting %
Paul-Booker-Bridges-Crowder-Ayton 116.4 109.0 +7.4 60.0%
Paul-Shamet-Bridges-Crowder-Ayton 107.2 99.6 +7.6 59.4%

The question is, how much of a burden will Chris Paul be asked to carry now? We must assume a very large one. While Paul’s average playing time didn’t increase at all when Booker missed games in the regular season, the playoffs are an entirely different animal.

Expect for Paul’s 35.7 minutes per game against the Pelicans in this series to go up. These next few contests are of the do-or-die variety for the Suns. For a good reference point, CP3 averaged 37.3 minutes of run in the 2021 Finals against the Bucks.

After a 30-point, 10-assist outburst in game 1, Paul had 14 assists in game 2 but only scored 17 points on 16 field goal attempts. The Suns will in all likelihood require maximum scoring and playmaking from the player affectionately known as The Point God.

While Deandre Ayton has a good offensive repertoire that Monty Williams will likely turn to, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges do not avidly look for shots. None of the trio can be counted on to consistently make plays for others.

As for the Pelicans, the best news surrounding the team is that there are no concerns about Brandon Ingram, who practiced in full yesterday after rolling his ankle in game 2.

However, Booker’s lack of availability doesn’t mean that the Pelicans should suddenly be considered the favorite to win this series. Oddsmakers list them as 2.0-point underdogs as of this writing for tonight’s matchup in New Orleans.

CJ McCollum explained why the Suns should still be considered a very dangerous and potent opponent after yesterday’s practice.

“It’s a different animal, but they’re still a very good team. Obviously, Book is a special, special talent and I hope he gets back as soon as possible. Injuries are a terrible part of the game, but as I’ve told the team many times, a wounded animal is more dangerous than a healthy animal because you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what players are going to step up. Game planning changes. Opportunity changes.

“As a player who’s had a lot of roles throughout his career, you relish the opportunity for a larger role on this type of stage. This is how I got my first career playoff start — it was literally injuries. Seven, eight years ago against the Memphis Grizzlies, I ended up starting in the playoffs and taking advantage. You don’t want to take teams for granted. You’ve got to understand what’s at stake. Injuries or not, this is still a very dangerous team.”

Make no mistake, the New Orleans Pelicans are going to have to play extremely well just to win another contest in this series. Brandon Ingram can hopefully muster something similar to his 37-point, 11-rebound and nine-assist performance. Role players like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, Larry Nance Jr and Jaxson Hayes must remain assertive and make positive impacts.

I’ll be particularly focused on McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas. Both players have been instrumental in the series being tied at 1-1, but more production is required. Neither McCollum (37.2 FG%) nor Valanciunas (36.7 FG%) have efficiently scored the basketball. It’s usually a hallmark of their success.

One wrinkle that also is worth monitoring going forward: the Pelicans may have a budding death lineup that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

Zion Williamson isn’t appearing in games yet for the New Orleans Pelicans — and there’s no expectation of him returning soon with an “out indefinitely” tag, but Willie Green may have a super 5 at his disposal for the rest of these playoffs.

Although the sample size is incredibly small, the grouping of CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy III and Larry Nance Jr. has been out lights out when paired together.

Games Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating TS%
Regular Season 1 5 80.0 100.0 -20.0 58.1%
Play-In 1 6 127.3 72.7 +54.5 54.9%
Playoffs 2 5 170.0 50.0 +120.0 75.1%

With Cameron Johnson likely to soak up a lot of Devin Booker’s minutes, utilizing this New Orleans lineup more often could be a key because I like numerous potential matchups on both sides of the ball.

The Pelicans have a fun, golden opportunity sitting in front of them. Assisting them in this incredible journey, the Smoothie King Center is sold out for games 3 and 4. Winning tonight to take a series lead would be wonderful, but getting these next two games against a team missing its biggest star feels necessary if the Pelicans are to do the unthinkable and move onto the next round of the 2022 playoffs.

New Orleans is definitely inexperienced on paper, but maybe not carrying playoff scars will turn out a good thing? Going from a 1-12 start to consistently improving over the course of the season to winning several do-or-die play-in games to beating these Suns on their home floor, the confidence can’t be any higher inside the locker room.

Let’s go, unbridled enthusiasm!

LET’S GEAUX, PELICANS!!

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