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It’s one down, 15 to go for the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix took care of business in Game 1 of their first-round series against the 8-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, dismantling their opponent 110-99 at home. In a game where the Suns never trailed and led by as many as 23 points, they looked every bit the part of a title contender.
New Orleans made things interesting with a 37-point third quarter, but Chris Paul and the Suns’ defense kicked things back up a notch when the game got tight and sealed the deal.
Here’s a look at the most important takeaways as Phoenix went up 1-0 in the series.
1. Chris Paul and Devin Booker unfazed by Pelicans’ pressure
Heading into this matchup, Pelicans coach Willie Green’s familiarity with the Suns’ system was a potential hurdle in the coaching chess match. After being an assistant under Williams in Phoenix last year, Green showed during the regular season that he believed the best way to combat Devin Booker and Chris Paul was by frequently pressuring them.
“Setting the tone early with our physicality,” Green said Sunday night. “We know Devin and Chris are dynamic in pick-and-rolls, and they’re dynamic in midrange shots. We have to contest shots and we have to do it by a committee.”
For Game 1, at least, the Suns’ All-Star backcourt looked completely comfortable with that.
Book led the scoring charge early, finishing with 25 points and 8 assists on 8-of-19 shooting. But after putting up 11 points through three quarters, the Point God awoke from his tomb, showering the Pelicans with a barrage of Easter miracles: 30 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 steals.
“That man’s a true competitor, a true winner, and he wants it that bad,” Booker said. “You can see it in his demeanor, you can see it in his walk. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody, he’s built for these moments.”
Paul racked up 19 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter, including a stretch where he scored or assisted on 19 straight Suns points. All in all, CP3 scored or assisted on 23 of Phoenix’s 31 points in the final frame.
It came at the perfect time, with the Pelicans trimming the deficit to 8 points entering the fourth. Williams chalked it up to being “classic Chris.”
“It’s not a play call, it’s not an X and O thing, it’s just his ability to understand when he needs to take over a game,” Williams said. “I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Chris that just has that innate feel for that time.”
At the half, Paul had taken a grand total of five shots. Running into his ex-teammate and former Sun Jamal Crawford, his friend gave him some advice.
“Jamal Crawford, fam, one of my teammates came up to me at halftime and was like, ‘Shoot the ball,'” Paul said. “That’s what he said to me and Book when we were standing over there. And so I started shooting.”
At one point in the fourth, Paul unleashed a triple, a dime to JaVale McGee for a dunk and then two more 3-pointers. New Orleans’ defenders kept going under the screens for Paul, daring a guy who shot 31.7% from long range this season to launch.
To paraphrase the MJ meme, Paul took that personally.
“I could hear Willie yell out ‘go under,’ so that means they gonna go under the ball screens,” Paul said. “So that’s like inviting me to shoot.”
When you have two high-I.Q., ruthless basketball players on the court like Paul and Booker, opposing players are going to be targeted on defense in a playoff series. It’s an unspoken brand of basketball bullying, only the Suns do speak on it.
“That’s just having a feel for each other, the chemistry, the IQ,” Booker explained. “If something works, we’re gonna go back to it. It sounds simple, but you watch a lot of games sometimes, and teams don’t expose the weak link out there, what we call the pigeon, the person that can’t guard. And if we have somebody that we feel that can’t guard, and they’re switching 1-5 or 1-4, we’re gonna keep going to it.”
The spacing in those situations is key. Not only was Paul finding room to hoist up 3s, but the shooters around him even allowed him to get to the rim for the kinds of easy layups a 36-year-old, 6-foot guard doesn’t often enjoy these days.
“”The couple of times where Chris got to the basket, that doesn’t happen if we’re not spaced properly,” Williams said. “All of our guys understand for Chris and Book to be effective like that, we have to be in our proper spaces, whether it’s extreme corner or at the 4-point line. And a couple of times when he got all the way to the rim, you could see the floor was spaced because we do have guys who can knock down shots.”
Starting Jaxson Hayes at the 4 was a disaster for the Pelicans, and it wasn’t surprising that he only played 11 minutes. The Suns repeatedly targeted him, and his -11 was somehow not as bad as it felt.
Unfortunately for NOLA, the bleeding only stopped for a time when Larry Nance Jr. came in. That change helped the Pelicans close the gap…until it was time for Paul to target a new pigeon.
“You read the game, sort of take what the defense gives you,” Paul explained. “When they bring Nance in, they usually red 1-5, which means switch every ball screen. So it’s open, take it, you know what I mean? Or drive and create for others.”
The Suns won’t rely on Paul to drop 30 and 10 on a nightly basis at this stage, but it’s good to know that after spending all season not actively seeking his shot, he’s still more than capable of dominating when he sees fit.
“Man, that is the CP3 show, you just got a little taste of it,” Deandre Ayton said. “He was locked in. He just took advantage of what the defense gave him. There was a lot of switching going on in that quarter, and he just took advantage of it. He did what he did best in reading the defense and just attacking, and we trust it.”
2. Mikal Bridges had CJ McCollum and the Pelicans in hell
All week, the Suns talked about cutting two heads off the snakes for the Pelicans in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. In Game 1, Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mikal Bridges proved to be up to the task and then some.
Bridges was an absolute pest on the defensive end. While McCollum still notched 25 points and 6 assists, those numbers came on 9-of-25 shooting with 3 turnovers. Phoenix will be happy to let McCollum repeat that kind of stat line if it comes with 36% shooting.
“CJ is a handful, and he’s one of the rare guys that can dribble 10-15 times and get off a shot, and Mikal is one of the rare guys that can stay in front and force a tough shot,” Williams said. “So we know that he has the ability to stay in front of people. In the end, they were trying to get Mikal off of him, and we gotta try our best to keep him on their scorers.”
It wasn’t just Bridges stifling New Orleans’ point of attack, however. Williams specifically mentioned how good Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig were in that regard, especially in the first half, and Ayton was a force contesting shots too.
Between that, Ingram’s 6-of-17 night and Jonas Valanciunas going 7-for-21, the Suns smothered the Pelicans’ Big 3 into a combined 22-for-63 shooting night (34.9%).
“It’s obvious what they have over there, the talent that they have with those two guys with their ability to score and make tough shots, so we were just trying to make it tough on them every possession,” Booker said. “That doesn’t always go in our favor, they’re gonna hit some shots, but as long as it’s tough and making ’em work for it.”
3. Playoff DA is still a thing
Booker dominated early on, Paul took over late and Bridges was the defensive stalwart, but Ayton was consistent all night. Finishing with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks on 10-of-15 shooting, Playoff DA returned with a vengeance Sunday night.
Bridges may have had McCollum in jail for most of the night, but Ayton being able to switch onto the perimeter and stick with New Orleans’ guards and wings had them in a different kind of prison: IncarcerAYTON.
“I thought the ability to guard smaller guys and force tough shots, I think he had a couple where he was guarding a smaller guy and they tried to get to the basket, and he sent it out of bounds, and that allowed for us to set our defense,” Williams said. “He’s a weapon for us. When you’re in a late-clock situation and you can put a 7-foot, athletic guy on the ball, and trust him not to foul and force a tough shot, you’ll take that every time.”
For his part, Ayton relishes the task of switching onto perimeter players in “red,” which means switching everything on pick-and-rolls.
“It was fun, just being that coordinated, telling my guys where the screens coming from and where I’m at on the screen,” Ayton said. “I like sliding my feet, so just being out there and just causing havoc, and especially in the pick-and-rolls red, it was fun.”
He was also dominant inside. Although Jonas Valanciunas finished with 18 points and 25 rebounds (including a staggering 13 offensive rebounds), Ayton helped limit him to just 7-of-21 shooting.
Offensively, Ayton knocked down a bevy of midrange jumpers and was as tidy as ever around the basket. It’s only Game 1 of the first round, but no one should be surprised Playoff DA is back again.
Phoenix should’ve paid him after last summer’s Finals run, and right out of the gate, he’s proving he deserves that payday once again. If he starts doing things like this regularly, the rest of the league is in big trouble.
4. Suns’ first-half defense was absolutely elite
The 37-point third quarter was uncharacteristically bad. But holding the Pelicans to 34 first-half points? That’s the biggest reason Phoenix won Game 1.
“We were just connected,” Paul said. “We were just making it tough on CJ, same thing with BI, and closing out to their shooters. We was just on a string. I think a lot of times people think about our offense and how we move the ball and stuff, but our defense is really what we sort of hang our hats on.”
In that first half, the Suns built a 19-point lead as they limited New Orleans to 22.4% shooting from the field, including 26.7% from 3-point range — this, despite giving up 15 offensive rebounds.
That sort of thing should be impossible, especially with how unrelenting the Suns were on the interior:
Try as they might, the Pelicans never recovered from their three best players going a combined 9-for-34 in the first half. With McCollum and Ingram in jail, it was an uphill battle all night.
“We’re just trying to make it as tough on those guys, as we can,” Williams said. “A lot of it was putting two guys on the ball, but then the weak-side pulled in to force a longer pass if we could. Some of it was just forcing them into one-on-one situations, and in the first half, they didn’t make that many shots.”
5. Offensive rebounding issue is still a problem
Nine out of 10 times, if you give an NBA opponent 25 offensive rebounds and 29 second-chance points, you’re going to lose. In fact, you’re probably going to get creamed.
And yet, after doing just that, the Suns are up 1-0 in the series.
They survived what feels like the worst-case scenario, but it’ll most certainly be an even bigger point of emphasis moving forward.
“Yeah, it’s been something we’ve talked about for a while,” Williams said. “We have to continue to work at hitting those guys first. I think the bigs are caught in between coming over to help on the drive and staying with Valanciunas. We have to do a better job of staying in front of the ball from the perimeter so the bigs can stay connected.”
The Suns have hammered home the point that they need to be better about keeping opponents off the offensive glass, especially against this Pelicans group that — as we covered in our series preview — ranked fourth in offensive rebounding percentage and third in second-chance points.
The Pelicans abused the Suns for 58 offensive boards and 88 second-chance points in four regular-season meetings, and Sunday was no different. In fact, it got worse.
“Valanciunas had 25 rebounds and they had 25 offensive rebounds, and they end up with — I’m not quite sure, but close to 20 more shots than us, something along those lines,” Williams said. “So that allows for them to have so many extra possessions, and that can tire you out.”
A film session/deep dive into the rebounding issues is needed (check back here on Tuesday!), and the Suns say they’ll be going over clips to figure out where they can improve on this front — particularly the guards and wings, who have to be better about helping out when Ayton and the other bigs are pulled out to the perimeter.
“That is our job, we’re a team,” Paul said. “We’re not gonna grow overnight, you know what I mean? So we just gotta keep putting bodies on guys, boxing out, trying to do it as a collective.”
Game 1 proved the Suns are simply better than this 8-seed. The only way to help a team like this hang around is by giving them extra possessions and 17 additional shots on a nightly basis.
“I think our defense was solid all around, but it’s just, we gotta get them dudes off the glass, man,” Ayton said. “Can’t give them dudes life.”