The Phoenix Suns needed the absolute brilliance of 12-time All-Star Chris Paul to survive a potential playoff opener meltdown at the rebounding hands of upstart New Orleans Pelicans.
Paul scored 30 points, including 19 of them in a big fourth quarter, to overcome a 20-rebound deficit and seal a 110-99 win by the Suns. The Suns now have a 1-0 series lead over the Pels in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
The result and rebounding deficit were no different than the other four Suns-Pelicans games, actually. Under rookie head coach and former Suns assistant Willie Green, the Pels have lost four of five games to the Suns this year despite out-rebounding the Suns in all five by an average of 11 rebounds per game.
Sunday’s 20-rebound margin made the game more interesting in the second half, but it was not enough to overcome the Point God.
Paul scored 17 points in a decisive five-minutes of the fourth quarter to push a tenuous 7-point lead to 14 with just over six minutes to go. The Pelicans never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
The 36-year old Paul filled the stat sheet. He finished with 30 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and a block, becoming only the second Suns player in franchise playoff history to a 30/10/5/3 stat line (Charles Barkley in 1993).
The 30 points seemed like a lot right? Right. They are the most Paul has scored in any game since Game 1 of the NBA Finals almost a year ago.
And those 19 points in a quarter were a blast from the past too. The 19 fourth-quarter points are the most he’s scored in a quarter since closeout Game 6 against the Clippers two days before that, in June 30, 2021.
“The man is a true competitor. A true winner,” Devin Booker said of his teammate. “He wants it that bad. 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.”
Good to see that Playoff P (Chris Paul version) is back in form just in time for the most important two months in franchise history.
Paul and Booker have been taking turns as the star in Game 1s since last year, in which they are now 5-0 as teammates.
- 2021, Round 1, Suns vs. Lakers: Booker had 34 points with 8 assists and 7 rebounds in the playoff opener (Paul went down with the shoulder stinger in the second quarter, remember)
- 2021, Round 2, Suns vs. Nuggets: Paul had 21 points and 11 assists
- 2021, Round 3, Suns vs. Clippers: Booker had 40 points, 11 assists and 13 rebounds (Paul was out with COVID)
- 2021, Finals, Suns vs. Bucks: Paul had 32 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds
- 2022, Round 1, Suns vs. Pelicans: Paul had 30 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds
“I was just reading the game,” Paul said afterward. “When Book’s not in there, we always try to find other ways to score. That’s playing off one another and I could hear Willie say ‘go under,’ so that mean they’re going to go under the ball screen so that’s like inviting me to shoot.”
And shoot he did, making six straight shots in that personal 19-0 run (17 points of his own + 1 assist to a rolling JaVale McGee).
When pressed a third time in five minutes on how he knows just when to take over, Paul added this anecdote.
“Jamal Crawford, a fam, one of my teammates,” Paul said of his former Clippers teammate. “Came up to me at halftime and was like ‘Shoot the ball.’ That’s what he said to me and Book and so, I started shooting.”
Yet, the Suns only needed that score-y version of Paul on Sunday because they could not contain the Pelicans on the boards even a little bit.
The Pelicans had 20 offensive rebounds by the end of the third quarter! And once the Pelicans started making shots — they made 25 of 46 second half shots (54%) — they pulled all the way back to within 6 points for a possession.
Now the Suns have to regroup, watch the film, and figure out what went so wrong.
It’s not that the Suns need to win the rebounding battle if they want to win this series, it’s that they can’t keep losing it by 20 per game if they’re going to win a championship.
Rebounding is not the only key to winning for these Suns, but it certainly helps.
This season, the Suns have grabbed 50.3% of all available rebounds, meaning they usually break even on that front. In fact, they won the rebounding battle in 45 of 82 games this year, going 43-2 in those games. Basically, the Suns can beat you in so many ways; give them the rebounds too, and you’re just toast. They are still a winning team even when losing on the boards — 21-16 in those games.
The key for the Suns might not be winning the board battle but simply grabbing a magic number of them.
The Suns are 55-6 this season when they grab at least 40 rebounds in a game vs. 9-12 when they don’t.
On Sunday night, the Pelicans had the Suns a little uncomfortable until Chris Paul took over. He was also the team’s second leading rebounder, behind Deandre Ayton (9) and tied with JaVale McGee (7).
The Suns will need more than not only from the centers, but from everyone else too. You simply can’t get 7 total rebounds from your four-man forward rotation of Mikal Bridges (5), Cameron Johnson (1), Jae Crowder (1) and Torrey Craig (0). Those four are not great at rebounding, hence the Suns middling ranking despite two great boarders in Ayton and McGee, but they have to grab more than 7 in a game together. On average, those four bring down 17.9 boards per game — much better to balance the boards.
What caused such a meltdown?
“All of it,” head coach Monty Williams said, citing failure to “hit first” to secure inside rebound position, their expectation of non-centers to grab some boards so the center can actively contest shots with their back to the rim, getting pushed under the rim when the shot goes off the rim, and their tendency to “star gaze” when the shot goes up. “Boxing out is a lost art form,” he said.
The Pelicans had a whopping 21 offensive rebounds and turned that into 17 more field goal attempts than the Suns and 29 second-chance points — nearly 30% of their points for the whole game.
After a dominant first half where the Suns led 53-34 at halftime, the Pelicans outscored the Suns 37-26 in the third quarter when their shots started falling more often and entered the fourth period down only 79-71.
“Obviously, offensive rebounds and second chance points,” Devin Booker said of keys to the Pelicans run. “And we weren’t shifting for each other anymore. But, we figured it out. It’s a long game.”
Booker explained that the Suns defensive scheme had each player switching on defense when the Pels would set a pick, which kept every player on the move and took them out of natural rebound position. He said they told Ayton to ‘sell out’ on the shooter when they turned a corner and drove to the paint. Ayton got four blocks in the game (“should have been five”, Book said), but his rotations left huge Jonas Valanciunas alone under the boards to clean up. He had 25 rebounds in the game, 13 of them on the offensive end when his teammates missed contested shots.
“Rebounding, a lot of offensive rebounding, that’s about it,” Ayton said of what they need to fix. “I think our defense was solid all around, but we have to get them dudes off the glass, man. We can’t give them dudes life.”
Ayton expects the Suns to adjust, possibly with him staying at home more on Jonas to fight for rebounds during this series, but the Suns have spent all season playing a switch-heavy scheme and surviving.
“Definitely, I loved our defense tonight,” Ayton continued. “It was communicating and making sure we get back, but definitely just communicating and making sure we protect home. We just got to work on that glass part, that’s it.”
In all, the Suns held the Pelicans to just 38% shooting for the game, a testament to their focus on every shooter. Ingram, McCollum and Valanciunas made only 22 of 63 shots.
The Suns starters had not played any games in more than a week, and the starters ‘rested’ alternate games for a week before that. They had clinched the top playoff seed almost a month ago.
There was some fear of ‘rust’ for the Suns against a Pelicans team that had been playing playoff-like games for the past month just to get themselves into this position of making the playoffs after a 1-12 start to the season.
“That’s what we talked about post game,” Booker said. “Any time you haven’t played in eight days and a few of us guys taking a few rest days at the end of the season, to come out and have the start that we did, we’re proud of. Obviously, it slipped in the third quarter defensively, but we just have to take it to that notch, turn it up a notch and take it to that gear.”
Suns will host the Pelicans for Game 2 on Tuesday night, at 7:00PM.
“I told our guys, ‘To be able to persevere under those circumstances, in a playoff game and win the game, we’ll take it every time.’,” Monty Williams said of his post-game speech. “I feel like we’re going to get better once we get our game legs underneath us come Tuesday.”