What: Phoenix Suns (1st seed) host New Orleans Pelicans (8th seed), series tied 2-2
Why: Round 1, 2022 Western Conference Playoffs, 1 vs. 8
When: Tuesday, 7:00 PM AZ time
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: TNT, Bally Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, KSUN-La Mejor
Betting Line: The line for this game currently has the Suns at -6.5 point favorites on Draft Kings.
Devin Booker ain’t walking through that door, Suns fans. He’s day-to-day and recovering nicely from hamstring tightness, but the Phoenix Suns are being cautious. They are hopeful of a long playoff run and they need both Booker hamstrings to stay loose for another two months after he gets back.
Without him, the Suns find their backs up against the wall. Because without him, running mate Chris Paul gets all the Pelicans’ defensive attention. Twice, including once without Book in Game 3, Paul has carved that attention up, scoring 19 fourth quarter points on a steady diet of pick-and-rolls that sprung him open for his patented middy. The other two games are a different story, however. Ball pressure from Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado has gotten Paul out his game and the Suns out of their offensive flow.
On Sunday, Paul scored his fewest points (4) of the season and the Suns lost in 15-point blowout. The last time Paul scored just 4 points was Game 3 of the season, a 29-point loss to the Blazers. The Suns lost the next game too, the buzzer-beater to the Kings, but then won 18 straight.
The Suns are going to need the best of Chris Paul in Game 5, not the worst of him like on Sunday. They need a bounce-back game from him.
But that’s not the only Suns problem in this series. Oh no, that is not all.
The Suns are having a LOT of problems in this series, adding to up a series tie against a team that should not be able to think they might actually win this series.
Warning, this is a long preview. Lots of stats. Lots of quotes from Monty Williams, shared via Zoom on Monday’s off day. And lots of potential adjustments.
Settle in. We need this.
How the Suns can win
Without Booker, the Pelicans have the two most dynamic scorers on the floor in Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum. Those two have combined for 45.8 points, 14.1 rebounds, 11 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 45/45/80 shooting splits in the series.
This is no slam on Chris Paul. CP3 is the best overall player in this series. I’m simply saying Ingram and McCollum score more than Paul does. It’s true.
While McCollum’s numbers are stacked on pure volume, Ingram has reached new levels of efficiency he’s never seen before with 51/50/88 splits in the series, much higher than his 2022 regular season (46/32/82) and career splits (46/36/76).
The Suns will need put even greater focus on Ingram, and hope the added pressure will reduce his efficiency to numbers more like his career suggests.
“I thought we did a much better job on Brandon in the second half [of game four], of forcing him where we wanted him to go. He’s a tough shot maker,” head coach Monty Williams said.
Containing everyone else too
Overall, the Suns need to put in a lot more defensive effort everywhere to make the Pelicans uncomfortable when they’re taking shots.
“I think the struggle is, the way the screens are getting set, they’re able to get to their strong hand,” Williams said of both McCollum and Ingram, among others. “Even when you force them away from that hand, we haven’t done a consistently good job of forcing them where we want them to go.”
The Pelicans, as a team, are having the greatest shooting series they could possibly envision, with 47/39/75 splits. The Suns are limiting their good shots — allowing the fewest open + wide-open three point attempts in the playoffs — but the Pels are hitting them anyway. And, the Pels lead the playoffs in three-point percent on ‘tight’ defense too after being basically league-worst on those during the regular season.
The Suns need to make the Pelicans uncomfortable enough to regress to their ‘good’ post-All-Star shooting splits of 40/33/80, a stretch in which they went 13-10.
Get. The. Re. Bound!
My constant mantra from the couch this weekend. The Pelicans are rebounding their own misses at an alarming rate, grabbing 39% of all their misses for second shot attempts. Comparatively, the Suns were actually mid-pack in allowing the opponent to grab only 27% of their misses in the regular season. In these playoffs, they’re the worst of all 16 teams.
Monty Williams alluded to rotation changes that would help them match up better against the Pels more effective lineups.
“There is some thought to tinkering a little bit,” Williams said of the rotations. “You know, there’s different ways to do it though. One way is to match up better with their lineups that have been effective. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change the personnel, so to speak. I think that one thing that ends up happening, when you lose someone like Book, everybody moves up the pecking order, and that’s a different rotation in itself.
And so that is something that is on my mind and the mind of our staff. What that looks like, I’m not quite sure. I think I can do a better job of the end-game matchup when it happens. If they take somebody out that we want to match up against, like making sure we match up properly against that particular matchup.”
My guess is this alludes to the Pelicans’ rebound-everything minutes with Jonas Valanciunas on the floor, and especially hyper-active Larry Nance is next to him. With Nance-Jonas on the floor together, the Pels are grabbing a bile-inducing 61% of their team’s misses.
The problem for the Suns is finding the best combination of offense and defense to win the game. The Suns rebound better with McGee on the floor vs. Ayton, but that’s muddy because it’s dependent on who else is on the floor too.
In fact, McGee’s minutes have been good at rebounding but a huge negative in point differential (-9 per 100 possessions) while Ayton has only been a slight negative (-0.3). Ultimately, you win the game on points, not on rebounds. You might think that’s Cam Payne hurting JaVale, but somehow Payne is a positive in this series (+2.3, ranking 3rd highest on team).
Monty Williams needs to find a better balance between rebounding and scoring. And he might do that with some different mixing and matching of when Ayton and McGee, and even some Biyombo, might play.
Could Bismack Biyombo, a physical but undersized center, play some real minutes in Game 5?
“That kind of adjustment could happen. We’ll just wait to see,” Williams said. He did not elaborate whether Biyombo’s minutes could be next to, or in place of, Ayton or McGee. Just that they “need to be the hit-first team” on boxing out for rebounds.
“You’re reluctant to change when the series has been this tight,” Williams said. “There’s a couple of things that we have on the docket that we may implement tomorrow that will give those guys a different look.”
Make some friggin threes!
I talked about this yesterday, so I’ll only touch on it before sharing what Monty had to say about the Suns long-range shooting woes.
So far, the Suns rank a dismal 14th out of 16 playoff teams in three-point percentage (29.3%) after finishing 9th out of 30 teams (36.4%) during the regular season. In their two losses, the Suns have made only 12 of 28 non-Booker threes, a 25% clip.
That’s just awful. As I shared yesterday, the three-point shooting group of Payne-Bridges-Crowder-Craig-Johnson have combined to make only 6 threes ALL SERIES (4 games) after averaging 7.4 makes per game during the regular season.
And it’s not the Pelicans defense forcing the misses. The Suns are getting more open and wide-open threes than almost anyone else this postseason.
They just need to make those threes, and Monty Williams is counting on it.
“We have saying that reps remove doubt,” Williams said. “The guys have gotten their reps in. They are shots that we’ve made all year long. And I’m not going to get in any of our guys’ heads on missing shots, especially when you’re getting the open looks that we’re getting. They’re going to fall, and I believe they’re going to fall at the right time.”
Let’s hope the right time is right now, in Game 5, in front of their home crowd. The Suns had the best home record in the league this year, and some of that is credit to the fans’ energy that will surely be rocking the arena.
Williams wants these guys to keep launching those open threes without hesitation.
“There’s a freedom with [just letting it fly] that I haven’t felt consistently with this team,” he said.
Don’t lose your head
The Suns have allowed the Pelicans to muck up the game royally during this series, replete with cheap shots from behind in an over-aggressive manner to disrupt the Suns. And the Suns have taken the bait, resorting to cheap shots of their own.
“The antics and physicality hurt us a little bit,” Williams said after game four.
The Pelicans applied a lot of ball pressure to Chris Paul, picking him up full-court and trapping him at the half court line.
But Williams attributed the Suns lack of poise to over-reacting to the Pelicans over-the-top physicality. For example, Jaxson Hayes was caught and ejected in Game 3 for a crack-back block to Jae Crowder because it was right in front of the Suns bench, yet Herb Jones got away with the same cheap shot on Chris Paul in game four, partly because it was in front of the Pels bench this time.
“There’s been some gray areas on the physicality,” Williams said, diplomatically. “Like blind shots on guys who were defenseless on the back side. But we’ve shown the ability to hit first and go get rebounds, and we did it in game 3.”
Update: Williams was hit with a $15,000 fine by the NBA for criticizing officials in post-game comments after Game 4 where the Pelicans got 42 free throws to the Suns’ 15.
Williams wants the Suns ramp up physicality, but also to keep their poise and professionalism. “hit first” means being the first to box out your man for rebound position, not to crack-back them.
Play Suns basketball!
When the Suns were down 1-2 to the Lakers in the first round a year ago, Williams made it a point to say they weren’t playing Suns basketball. That they were letting the Lakers muck up the game from a physicality standpoint, even leading to antics that got the Suns out of their game.
A year ago, it was Devin Booker so frustrated he got tossed for taking a cheap shot at a Laker late in a blowout-loss in Game 3. This time, it’s Chris Paul (nearly) getting tossed for taking a cheap shot at Herb Jones late in the blowout loss in Game 4.
Monty wants to see their poise come back. Despite all the frustrations, the Suns still have the upper hand and they need to remember they earned it.
“We are at home in front of our fans,” Williams said of Game 5. “And we get a chance to go out there and consistently show the kind of basketball that we played all year that we’ve yet to show in this series.”
No one’s more frustrated than the Suns that they don’t look like themselves. However, the line between beauty and struggle is often a very thin line.
Inside the three point line, the Suns have been quite good. They are somehow still 3rd in these playoffs in Effective Shooting Percentage — a combination of two-point and three-point accuracy — which shows that if they could make a few more threes they’d be absolutely thriving.
Even under the ball pressure that the Pelicans are employing, the Suns are getting the shots they want.
“A lot of the stuff comes down to making or missing the shot,” Williams said. “There were times we got into our offense and got a wide open shot and just missed it.”
Missing a ton of shots can be frustrating to watch. Imagine being the guys who are doing the missing. They’re incredibly frustrated, which leads to more bad play.
The Suns have had a saying for the past three years called ‘paint to great’ — which means that every possession should include a paint touch somewhere. That doesn’t mean a dunk or layup all the time, but at least a foot in the paint by the ball-handler, the roller or the cutter.
In this series, the Suns have far outscored the Pelicans on points in the paint, yet they got quite frustrated on Sunday when the Pelicans got to the line a ton (42 free throws) while the Suns only got 15 free throws.
“It’s important to touch the paint on every possession,” Williams said. “I think there was a bit of frustration that we didn’t get to the line like we thought we should have when we did get to the paint, but we have to play through that frustration.”
Just win, baby
“We’ve won two games and we’ve lost two games. That’s the reality,” Williams said.
The Suns now have home court advantage for the rest of the series, with two of the last three games at Footprint Center, where they had the best home record in the NBA. They also happen to have the league’s best road record too.
First team to win two or these last three games wins the series.
Monty Williams is ready to see his Suns to play like they won 64 games this year, but he will take the win no matter how pretty or ugly it is.
Imagine all these things going wrong — Brandon Ingram playing like vintage KD, Pels shooting lights out against good D, getting killed on the boards, Booker out, missing tons of open shots — and yet still having the advantage in the series.
That’s what the regular season did for these Suns.
Williams is confident we will see the good Suns before this series is over. They’re not going to wait for the Pelicans to come back to earth. They’re going to be the aggressor.
“We’re going to play our tails off,” Williams said. “And it’s gonna give us a ton of confidence.”
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