The New Orleans Pelicans fell 114-111 in game 3, but the final score failed to provide the full story. Behind another brilliant closing act from Chris Paul again, the Phoenix Suns had grabbed control of the fourth quarter well before the waning seconds.
That’s a shame because it felt there was an opportunity to seize the victory earlier, and the fans were more than eager to explode in celebration.
The sell-out crowd was ready, filling the Smoothie King Center to the brim in a sea of red “One Nola” T-shirts. The players were dancing outside their locker room before emerging for warmups. Soon thereafter, the action lived up to the electricity in the building.
Jaxson Hayes rebounded the team’s first four boards with great vigor. He threw down a nice jam for the game’s first score too. Brandon Ingram went on an individual 5-0 spurt. Even Devonte’ Graham, who has been mired in the longest of shooting slumps, was firing on all cylinders, contributing 11 points on the strength of a trio of 3-point makes.
A little over 13 minutes in, the New Orleans Pelicans led the Phoenix Suns by a 35-28 score. Unfortunately, that would be as good as it got for the rest of the first half.
The lead evaporated quickly. Then with the score tied at 43 apiece, Hayes bulldozed Jae Crowder with two outstretched arms in an attempt to grab an offensive rebound. The referees were not kind. The Flagrant 2 ejection took the wind out of New Orleans’ sails, as the Suns outscored the Pels 16-5 over the last 5:13 before intermission.
It was particularly hard to stomach a New Orleans 59-48 halftime deficit upon witnessing the action, or lack thereof, in the lane. The Suns outscored the Pelicans 38-14 in the paint as Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee were absolutely dominant in combining for 30 points.
That trend would continue into the second half, but the Pelicans did manage to claw their way back, even momentarily seizing the lead.
Trailing 66-53 in the third, the Pelicans went on an 12-0 run. Before the start of the fourth, it was a two-point disadvantage.
Then Jose Alvarado did some heavy lifting.
The reserve point guard scored four buckets in the frame, with every hoop giving New Orleans a lead each time. An unknowing observer would have never guessed they were watching a rookie playing on the biggest stage.
With 5:41 remaining in the game, an Alvarado lay-in gave the Pels a 93-92 lead. However, Chris Paul was busy doing masterful things on the other end. activating Point God mode as soon as he re-entered at the 10:31 mark.
CP3 scored 19 of his 28 points in the deciding fourth. New Orleans looked absolutely powerless in stopping him. Jonas Valanciunas was prime bait, as the future Hall of Famer involved the New Orleans starting center in a pick and roll every single time down the floor. But even with Larry Nance in the game, it didn’t seem to deter Paul from finding and hitting in his favorite midrange area.
The Pelicans could have made things more interesting had they just played cleaner basketball from start to finish. The seven missed free throws and 15 turnovers hurt — in comparison, the Suns missed five freebies and committed six turnovers, but giving up four offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter really stood out.
When going up against a proven clutch performer like Paul, you’ve got to be at your best down the stretch. Watching Crowder flip in an unabated putback off a CP3 miss and then later hit a jumper after two Phoenix misses on the same possession felt like the sharpest daggers.
Brandon Ingram was absolutely magnificent, pouring in 34 points. He hit 11 of 19 from the field, 3 of 6 from behind the arc and 9 of 10 from the free throw line. It honestly feels like New Orleans threw away a special BI game that the team needed to win. Hopefully, it doesn’t come back to haunt them in this series.
CJ McCollum wasn’t as steady as Ingram, but still finished with a great line: 30 points, four rebounds, seven assists and four threes.
The Pelicans didn’t play their best brand of basketball and it particularly showed from the center position Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance were ineffective in slowing down either Paul or Ayton. That’s obviously no easy task, but their offense was missing from the equation too, with each player converting just a single field goal attempt. This led to New Orleans getting destroyed 64-40 on points in the paint.
Off the bench, Graham added 13 points, and Alvarado tallied nine. Trey Murphy failed to find the range on all three of his shot attempts.
Chris Paul nearly duplicated his game 1 exploits in finishing with 28 points and 14 assists. Deandre Ayton was also unstoppable: 28 points, 17 rebounds, three steals.
One can’t help but think New Orleans will regret losing to a Phoenix team that shot 15.4% from 3-point range, and on a personal level, Hayes must be unsettled with getting thrown out of a game in which Willie Green could have utilized him after not finding success with Valanciunas and Nance.
Fold this into the pile of growing pains. This is the first playoff series for the majority of the players on the roster. We can only hope experience proves to be a quick teacher. Game 4 is set for the same tip-off time on Sunday. Evening the series at two games a piece should now be the only focus.
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