The Pelicans are facing a familiar predicament.
New Orleans’ 2021-22 season was on the brink twice in the Play-In Tournament. Had they lost either to the San Antonio Spurs or the Los Angeles Clippers, they would have missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
But the Pelicans prevailed in both instances when their backs were to the wall.
In order to stave off elimination once more, New Orleans will need to hand the Phoenix Suns their third loss of this first-round series. And to be perfectly honest, many like their chances of winning game 6 to stay alive.
While oddsmakers are listing the Pelicans as 1.5-point underdogs at the time of this writing, there’s an unmistakable aura around the team and in their hometown — as well as outside of it — that a game 7 sits on the horizon. Even a long-time critic of the franchise isn’t ready to count out New Orleans.
“I do think this could go seven, this series,” Bill Simmons said on the latest episode of his podcast. “I think Phoenix will end up winning. I’ve been impressed by New Orleans. McCollum had another bad one today and he’s been bad the last two games. It just seems like New Orleans’ destiny is to be kind of the frisky underdog that’s going to take you as far as it can.”
Neither team has won two straight in this series as counterpunches have been thrown and landed successfully in every ensuing game. Both coaching staffs have consistently made solid adjustments and the players in the locker rooms carry an immense amount of belief and pride to simply let go of the rope.
Of course, it must be highlighted that the Pelicans will be playing in front of their home crowd. The Smoothie King Center is going to be as loud as its been all series, with the Suns having become more and more hated as this series has progressed.
Sorry not sorry, there’s just no coming back from Chris Paul blatantly kicking Jose Alvarado in his groin area on Tuesday.
Pretty clear nutkick by CP3 on Alvarado here. Wonder if the league office will have something to say about it tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/yYjc2RecQS— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) April 27, 2022
For the Pelicans to extend the series, a number of boxes will have to be checked. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum can’t combine for 43 points on 41 shot attempts and produce nearly as many turnovers as assists. Jonas Valanciunas needs to get involved within the offense earlier. And shooting better than 5 for 25 from 3-point range as a team is probably a must.
While it would be nice for a role player to step up like Mikal Bridges, that hasn’t been the M.O. of the Pelicans all season. There exists no consistent point producer off the bench. In turn, Willie Green has needed to heavily reply upon Ingram, McCollum and Valanciunas to handle much of the scoring duties.
That will have to continue.
On the other end of the floor, the Pelicans can’t allow the Suns to enjoy a number of good looks. 47 of Phoenix’s 86 field goal attempts in game 5 were of the open or wide open variety. They knocked those shots down at a 55.3% mark, and the 6 of 12 shooting on wide open threes particularly stands out.
New Orleans will have to dominate the glass and get to the free throw at a greater clip again. The Pelicans have been able to offset the Suns stronger execution by giving themselves additional chances on the offensive end and converting opportunities gained from their aggressive attacking style via the charity stripe.
One thing that could complicate the game plan is Devin Booker. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Phoenix’s best player may return to action for game 6.
The Suns are expected to list Booker as “out” on the team’s injury report on Wednesday, but that could be adjusted in the hours leading up to Thursday’s Game 6 to reflect Booker’s possible progress.
Per the linked article, Booker’s injured hamstring has shown significant improvement. This meshes with reports from those who were within earshot at the end of game 5.
Booker just walked off the court saying “I’m back”!!! Saw it with my own eyes!!— Jordan Simone (@JordanSimone38) April 27, 2022
If Booker indeed returns for game 6, Willie Green would have to make an additional adjustment on the fly, accounting for the eighth-highest scorer from the regular season.
There’s no doubt that Phoenix wants to close out this series tonight. Paul isn’t getting any younger, and to win the championship, requires three more series wins if the Suns get past the Pelicans.
However, New Orleans has battled hard and no one should expect their mentality to deteriorate. The Pelicans offense and defense ranked in the top 10 to close out the regular season after Feb. 1. The team posted the third best net rating in the Play-In Tournament. And no first-round playoff series has been more hotly contested by the numbers than this one.
The New Orleans Pelicans can’t afford another loss. I can confidently say that they won’t bow down.
When: April 28, 2022, 6:30 p.m. CT
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, TNT
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM