The New Orleans Pelicans will look to even their first-round series against the Phoenix Suns tonight, and there’s several details that demand their utmost attention for that outcome to morph into reality.
“We just have to do the things that we do at a better notch and I thought we were half a step under of where we need to be against a really good team,” Willie Green said after yesterday’s practice. “We do those things, we clean up some things and make some adjustments, especially with Chris coming down the stretch of games, I think we’ll be better.”
Having watched Chris Paul’s exploits in games 1 and 3, the Pelicans undoubtedly have to devise a way to slow down the future Hall of Famer from wrecking their chances for victory down the stretch of contests.
No NBA player has carried his team to a greater degree so far in these playoffs when the situation’s demanded it. Paul is averaging 15.0 points and 3.0 assists in the fourth quarter, shooting the ball magnificently (69.6 FG%, 44.4 3PT%, 90.0 FT%) and executing flawlessly (0.0 turnovers).
Overall in this series, Paul is averaging 25.0 points and 12.7 assists. He has made 54% of his field goal attempts and turned the ball over a total of only two times.
When reviewing how opponents guarded Paul previously in the playoffs, the New Orleans game plan should involve forcing him to commit a few more miscues.
In the Western Conference semi’s last season, the Suns swept the Nuggets behind a similar effort from Paul. He averaged a double-double (25.5 points, 10.3 assists), shot lights out (62.7 FG%, 75.0 3PT%, 100 FT%) and never turned it over (five turnovers in 143 minutes).
However, while Paul’s shooting and scoring were vastly on point in the 2021 Finals, he registered 21 turnovers in six games against the Bucks. Not only was Jrue Holiday’s swarming defense a key, other Milwaukee defenders making CP3’s passing, driving and shooting lanes more hazardous with their length was crucial.
Herb Jones staying glued to Paul is necessary but so too is for all help defenders to lend a hand. More than likely, this will involve relying on Jaxson Hayes and Larry Nance rather than Jonas Valanciunas in pivotal minutes. The Pelicans starting center simply doesn’t possess the athleticism to guard pick and roll actions dictated by CP3.
However, this doesn’t mean that Valanciunas should be relegated to a small role. On the contrary, the Pelicans need to get him going early and often within the offense.
In their game two victory, the Pelicans lost the points in the paint battle by just two (44-46). In their two losses, they were demolished in that facet by an average of 19 points.
Valanciunas has made 12 of 35 field goals (34.3 FG%) to date. That has to change, especially considering he is capable of being much more effective and has enjoyed success against Deandre Ayton in the past.
For instance, when both players were available for matchups during the regular season, Valanciunas averaged 17.5 points on 50% shooting from the field in two meetings. He was a bigger net positive (+8.0 plus-minus) than Ayton (-3.0 plus-minus) overall too.
“That’s important,” Green said. “We talked about that as well in our film work. Get the ball to him, posting him up, and allowing him to play-make from the post is important. We didn’t do a great job of that in game 3.”
“Just having him touch the ball, trying to get Ayton into foul trouble or whatever the case may be,” Devonte’ Graham said. “Jonas can cause a lot of people to double or help so that would help get our wing players open shots, open looks. We just have to get him more touches on the block.”
In addition to slowing Paul and getting more production from the center position, the Pelicans are simply going to have to play more focused basketball. That’s usually a non-negotiable element of the playoffs — play a better and smarter game than your opponent.
“We’ve got to control what we can control,” Graham said. “Some of our turnovers, forced passes, letting Crowder get under our skin and stuff like that in causing some offensive fouls, points off turnovers and then playing with a little more pace instead of walking into our sets. Obviously, down the stretch, we’ve got to rebound. Just try and clean some of that up.”
If the Pelicans can check off a lot of these boxes, they’ll be in great position to prove the oddsmakers wrong in listing them as 2.5-point underdogs and tie this series up at two games apiece.
LET’S GEAUX PELS!
When: April 24, 2022, 8:30 p.m. CT
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, TNT
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM