PHOENIX — Championship teams share certain qualities. They treat adversity as opportunity. They don’t fall behind in playoff series. They avoid elimination games at all costs.
The Suns passed all three tests in a pivotal Game 5 at Footprint Center.
Their 112-97 victory over the Pelicans was resolute and reassuring. It was upset-proof and mostly drama-free. They received a superstar performance from Mikal Bridges, the team’s emotional touchstone who scored 31 points while playing nearly 47 minutes; whose elite defense included four blocked shots; while committing only one foul.
It was exactly what a gripping fan base needed to see.
“I thought for the most part we maintained the level of intensity tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Our game plan discipline was about as good as we’ve seen in the playoffs, for sure. I thought our guys were locked in to what we were trying to do.”
The Suns regained control of their Western Conference quarterfinal series by imposing their will defensively. Deandre Ayton set the tone. Cam Payne shook off his playoff lethargy, giving the team a microburst of energy and passion. The lid finally came off and shots began to drop. And when the lead reached double figures, the Phoenix crowd finally found their playoff lungs.
The Suns were rarely threatened thereafter.
“Just playing hard. That’s the biggest thing,” Bridges said. “Playing hard and playing for each other.”
The triumph represents a shining moment for Williams, who joked about being lighter in the wallet, fined $15,000 on Tuesday for his criticism of the officiating in Game 4. He admitted praying to a higher power for an end to the team’s three-point shooting woes, prayers that did not go unanswered. He declared unconvincingly that his point guard, Chris Paul, is fully healthy.
Not sure about the last part, as there were again a handful of moments when Paul struggled with his masterful handle. For the second consecutive game, he committed an eight-second violation, unable to get the ball across midcourt against Pelicans pest Jose Alvarado. Paul responded by drawing a dangerous technical foul that opened a brief window of opportunity for the visitors.
Paul claimed he said nothing worthy of a technical foul. But this fact remains:
When healthy, Paul does not struggle to get the ball over half-court against anyone. His issues didn’t stop Paul from dropping 22 points and 11 assists. But they are troubling, painfully familiar to what we all experienced in last year’s Finals demise.
But after being outcoached by former assistant Willie Green for most of the series, Williams certainly made an imprint on Game 5.
He tinkered with a big-boy lineup, pairing Ayton with JaVale McGee. He dished out minutes to Aaron Holiday and Bismack Biyombo. Despite the enormous stakes, he went deeper into his bench. His trust was rewarded with a team that was fully engaged and fully connected, and a bench that contributed 25 points to the outcome.
Strong performances were abundant. Ayton has been sensational throughout the series, furthering his reputation as a prime-time player. He still has a maddening tendency to drift and underperform during the regular season, but Ayton has no problems locking in and sustaining extreme focus for playoff games, for the stuff that really matters. His offense carried the Suns early and his defense was rock solid until the very end. Only a fool would refuse to pay him what he deserves when the season is over.
Meanwhile, Bridges was the beating heart of this triumph. He scored from the perimeter and he scored on dunks and darts to the basket. He brought the swagger that was painfully absent in the second half of Game 4 in new Orleans, a swagger that suffered without the presence of Devin Booker.
“Can’t clone him but you wish you could,” Williams said of Bridges.
Truth is, the Suns will not look like a championship team in full until Booker returns. But it’s imperative that they buy enough time and win enough games to make sure Booker gets that chance. And Tuesday’s sturdy performance at the crossroads is a step in the right direction.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.