NEW ORLEANS — We’re here, folks. A coin flip. The New Orleans Pelicans will soon answer if they are the hard counter to the Phoenix Suns.
Honestly, you can almost say they already are after forcing this series to be tied 2-2 heading back to Phoenix for Tuesday’s Game 5.
There are many ways to be surprised by the way this series has unfolded through four games but my next point is easily the biggest shock.
If I were to take the average knowledgeable basketball fan such as yourself and have them watch these four games without any preconceived notions about either team, and then you were to tell them that one of these teams has much better depth than the other, they would have thought without a doubt it was the Pelicans.
New Orleans has had nearly every member of its rotation significantly impact at least one game.
And when looking at the Suns outside of Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul, while giving Mikal Bridges a pass for his defense on C.J. McCollum, the only clear-cut case you could present was JaVale McGee in Game 3. That’s it.
There are many complexities within the way this series has gone but that’s the simple answer. The Suns, mainly their supporting cast, have not played well at all.
How does that change beyond them just being better, like they were all regular season?
We will skip over the obvious part to start, something head coach Monty Williams mentioned Sunday, which is that the team that has won the 50/50 balls and been first to the spot has won these games. Everyone has to do that on Tuesday and everything will be easier from there.
Assuming that happens, the uphill trek Williams and his staff have to go on over the next few days from there is how to get the flow of the offense back.
And the crazy part is the Suns’ shooting percentages inside the 3-point line are great.
Phoenix is 138-of-220 (62.7%) on 2-pointers in this series. A lot of that has to do with its domination in the paint, where the points there favor the Suns 218-176. Those 218 points in the paint are the most in the playoffs.
That is encouraging. So is the Suns doubling up the Pelicans in points off turnovers 82-41, taking advantage of extra possessions and getting freebies to make up for the lack of cohesion without Devin Booker (mild hamstring strain).
The 34-of-116 (29.3%) from deep number is not. As I covered for Game 4, this has not been due to a lack of good looks, and that persisted on Sunday for the guys that are in their roles on the team because they make those shots.
Bridges, Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig, Cam Johnson, Cam Payne and Landry Shamet are a combined 13-for-72 (18.1%) from 3. Take out Johnson’s 7-of-20 mark and those five are 6-of-52 (11.5%).
Again, this is some basketball analysis a four-year-old could provide you. Make basketball shots you usually do. They should go in eventually. Progression/regression to the mean is always a thing in basketball but sometimes it takes longer than six or seven games for that to happen. It might not for the Suns in this series.
So, getting someone like Bridges to step up as an individual offensively is a must.
Bridges has taken 40 shots in four games. The target should be 15-plus in every game going forward.
The good news for Suns fans is that in Game 4 Bridges was the most aggressive with his off-the-bounce game he’s been.
Some of these shots didn’t go in and that’s fine because Bridges has been ultra-efficient in the midrange and at the rim with his terrific touch. It’s about producing the looks and sticking with them.
We’ve seen Ayton play with tremendous confidence as a scorer in this series unlike almost any other section of his career. Bridges needs to do the same, because on top of the scoring, it does not take a Pistol Pete Maravich level of playmaking to break down the defense with passes if his own openings are covered up.
He had five assists on Sunday and showed how he’s capable in that regard.
Crowder was able to get to a few midrange pockets where he’s been solid this year. A lot of the Suns’ fanbase hates when he does anything on offense besides shoot open 3-pointers but Crowder shot 45% on just over one long midrange shot a game, and in floater territory, it was the same one per night at a 50% conversion rate, per Cleaning the Glass.
These are shots the Pelicans’ defense will invite that he can take in rhythm.
Do not misrepresent me as saying it’s time for on-ball focal point Jae Crowder. But when the openings are there, he needs to continue to make them and try to find a shot or two to go down to restore his rhythm.
Johnson has shown an ability in a few games this year to recognize where a whistle is at and earn free throws, something the Suns desperately need going forward. During his 38-point rage-fueled career night against the New York Knicks, Johnson was 7-of-8 from the line. He knocked down 74% of his attempts at the rim this season after 71% last year, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He’s really good in straight, line-drive situations off the bounce and that’s where he can get some opportunities off the gravity Ayton and Paul take up.
For Bridges and Johnson specifically, it’s time for Williams to really bump the number of sets getting those two moving off the ball so they can immediately get downhill.
It was a mixed bag with how often it got done, as Williams said Monday.
“It was really good in the first half last night,” he said. “If you watch, as you guys did, we played in not just in 0.5, we played in an aggressive attack mode to get to the paint. I thought the lack of shotmaking probably messed with us a little bit in that regard but when you don’t have Book it’s really important to touch the paint as best you can.”
As you’ll notice going back through all those clips, nearly all of them for the main trio of wings were in the first half.
And when it comes to free throws, Bally Sports’ Eddie Johnson nailed it on the broadcast by saying the Suns have to attack the basket seeking out that next level of contact, getting that extra step or two into the teeth of the defense to draw shooting fouls.
All of this is necessary because Payne has been brutal this series as the only other real primary option on the ball beyond Booker and Paul.
Where Payne and those other guys will need to continue to help is initiating the beginning of the offense so Paul doesn’t have to deal with bringing the ball up through full-court pressure almost every second he’s on the floor.
When the fourth quarter got underway, Pelicans head coach Willie Green deployed traps on Paul knowing the point guard was about to try and get his scoring going. He then took it a step further and used rookie Jose Alvarado in crunch time for the sole purpose of annoying Paul, another successful tactic even though Alvarado presents very little value offensively.
Alvarado even got Paul with his lurking in the corner trick, one that Paul is aware of.
That working on Chris freaking Paul, perhaps the smartest player in the history of basketball, speaks to how effective Green’s gameplan was and how well his group has been executing it.
“The games we’ve won, it’s been pretty obvious we’ve handled it pretty well,” Williams said of the full-court pressure on Paul. “Last night in the first half, I thought we did a good job. In the second half, it wasn’t necessarily the pressure, it was a lot of the antics and physicality I thought hurt us a little bit. When Jae had the ball and he was able to initiate, I thought we were in good shape. A lot of the stuff comes down to making or missing a shot.
“There were times when we got into our offense, we had a wide-open look and just missed it. I gotta get our guys thinking and playing the way that we’ve played all year long, and that’s just to hoop and let it fly. And there’s a freedom with that that I haven’t felt consistently with our team.”
This led to Williams bringing Payne back in the game because he needed someone else to run the offense.
It’s one example of how the Suns require its supplementary players to step up. Their struggles have been happening for far too long in the series. They are out of breathing room now.