9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Suns 3.5-, Over/Under: 222.5
A pair of Playoff hopefuls looking to break into the field within the crowded Western Conference meet tonight in the Big Easy, as the struggling New Orleans Pelicans play host to the Phoenix Suns from Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. Looking back on the seeding games that took place within the Bubble last August, no team was more successful in that unique environment than the Suns (11-8, 6th in Western Conference), who went unbeaten in the eight contests, narrowly missing out on a place in the West’s Play-In Game. Heading into the shortest offseason in the long history of the Association, (Head Coach) Monty Williams and (General Manager) James Jones were hellbent on keeping that momentum rolling into 2020-2021, and they pulled off a coup in the form of acquiring (nine-time All-NBA Point Guard) Chris Paul (16.6 PTS, 47.0% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 19.1 PER) in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even at this stage of his career, the 35-year old proved his value as a floor general last season in leading a young Thunder team to a surprising 44-28 finish, nearly ousting his former team, the Houston Rockets, in the First Round of Playoffs. Phoenix on the other hand, has been in dire need of a quality Point Guard for years, and pounced on the opportunity to add a veteran presence still performing at an All-Star level. Thus far, Paul’s presence and leadership skills have had an immensely positive effect on his young teammates, with the likes of (Small Forward) Mikal Bridges (14.6 PTS, 48.5% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.0 BLK, 15.9 PER) and (former No. One Overall Pick) DeAndre Ayton (14.2 PTS, 56.9% FG, 12.8 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.1 BLK, 18.2 PER) improving by leaps and bounds. The only player that we’re still waiting to explode alongside the ten-time All-Star is (sharpshooting Guard) Devin Booker (22.9 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 14.8 PER), who previously assumed many of the team’s ballhandling duties largely out of necessity. Coming off a career campaign in which he logged career-highs in a wealth of categories, and taking his game to another level within the Bubble (30.5 PTS, 50.3% FG, 4.9 REB, 6.0 AST), the 24-year old has had to adjust to playing off the ball more often, though that should be something that works itself out the more that he and Paul are on the floor together, particularly after he works his way back from a left hamstring strain that had sidelined him since January 22nd. It’s been interesting to see how these team has evolved with Paul at the point, as they’ve begun to resemble the style of play of his former teams; the Suns are playing much slower than they did last season, averaging 97.5 possessions per 48 minutes (26th Overall), which has led to much-improved play on the defensive end of the hardwood, ranking sixth overall in points allowed (107.5), ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (52.1%), fifth in three-point percentage relinquished (35.3%), second in defensive rebounding percentage (80.0%), and second in assists permitted (22.1). Furthermore, Phoenix has become far more efficient offensively, dishing out 25.8 assists (9th Overall) in comparison to committing just 13.6 turnovers (6th Overall), with a mere turnover percentage of 12.3% (6th Overall). Unfortunately, their impressive start to the season (7-4) hit a major road block in the form of COVID-19, with three games postponed due to the NBA’s Safety Protocols regarding the virus. Since getting back to business on January 18th, Williams’ charges have won just four of seven outings, though are bringing a three-game winning streak into tonight’s matchup with the Pelicans. During this run they have averaged 111.3 points per game on 46.4% shooting from the field, including 38.25 from beyond the arc, along with 25.0 assists opposed to 14.3 turnovers, while yielding 102.0 points on 44.4% shooting from the floor and 30.3% from downtown, relinquishing just 19.7 assists and forcing 14.0 turnovers, all the while outrebounding them by a healthy margin of Plus-5.3 boards a night.
“I imagine if I’d have taken Book out, that would have been the first time you’d seen a player knock a coach out on the sidelines.”Monty Williams on his decision to toss his plan to monitor Devin Booker’s minutes as the Guard hit the game-winner in Monday’s 109-108 win at Dallas
When we last saw the Suns, they swept their two-game stay in Dallas as they escaped American Airlines Center with a thrilling 109-108 victory on the strength of Booker’s exploits. For the second consecutive game Phoenix trailed by double-digits in the Third Quarter, but would rally back once again, as Paul found Booker from the sideline, leading to the clutch three-pointer with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. On the night, the visitors shot a solid 46.7% from the field, including 13-of-35 from beyond the arc (37.1%), despite dishing out only nineteen assists in comparison to committing sixteen turnovers. Defensively, they limited the Mavs to 43.0% shooting overall, including 10-of-32 from downtown (31.3%), and sixteen assists while forcing fourteen turnovers. In his first start in over a week, Booker looked refreshed en route to scoring twenty-four points, twenty of which came in the Second Half, on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4%), including 4-of-8 from three (50.0%). Paul was excellent in posting a season-high thirty-four points on 14-of-20 shooting (70.0%), including 4-of-7 from long-range (57.1%), and nearly logged a triple-double with nine rebounds and assists apiece. Ayton, Bridges, and Cameron Johnson (11.3 PTS, 43.9% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.3 PER) each added ten points, with the young Center proving to be a beast on the glass with seventeen rebounds, six of the offensive variety. The Suns will be looking to continue this run for any prolonged struggles could spell doom out West, where teams four through ten are separated by a scant 2.5 games in the standings. Phoenix of course is looking to return to the Playoffs for the first time in eleven years, looking to wash away a disappointing decade marred by a supreme lack of direction from the front office, coaching changes and scandals. Williams is no doubt happy to have Paul, whom he coached in New Orleans for one season back in 2010-2011, with the veteran Point Guard advancing to the postseason in each of the last ten years no matter who he has played for. Tonight’s meeting with the Pelicans will mark the thirty-second time that he has faced the franchise that drafted him fourth overall way back in the 2005 NBA Draft (when they were the Hornets), averaging 17.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 10.2 assists in those matchups.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight has inserted themselves in the thick of things out West, the Pelicans (7-12, 14th in Western Conference) are very much in the process of finding themselves as they plummet towards the bottom of the Conference. It’s been a wild eighteen months for New Orleans for a variety of reasons, but we’re more than happy to run down the timeline for you. On May 14th, 2019 they won the Draft Lottery following a dismal 33-49 finish to the 2018-2019 campaign, securing the No. One Pick in that Draft, which they had already pledged to use on Zion Williamson (23.5 PTS, 58.1% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 23.5 PER). On June 6th, they traded (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis for (Guards) Lonzo Ball (12.6 PTS, 39.9% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.1 PER) and Josh Hart (8.1 PTS, 44.8% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.4 PER) along with (Forward) Brandon Ingram (23.4 PTS, 46.1% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 4.6 AST, 07 STL, 0.9 BLK, 19.6 PER) and a cache of Draft Picks, completely remaking their roster in the process. Unfortunately, Willamson would undergo knee surgery shortly before his rookie campaign was to begin, delaying his debut by three months, with the young star missing the first forty-three games of the season. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Association to shut down altogether not long after he finally made his long-awaited debut, with the team eventually invited to participate in the seeding games within the Bubble. The Pelicans would struggle in Orlando, losing all but two of their eight contests, eliminated from any possibility of competing in the West’s Play-In Game. Two days following their elimination, (Head Coach) Alvin Gentry was fired after five years in the Big Easy, eventually replaced on October 21st by Stan Van Gundy. Lastly, on November 23rd (longtime Point Guard) Jrue Holiday was packaged away as part of a mammoth four-team trade that saw (veteran Point Guard) Eric Bledsoe (13.9 PTS, 44.1% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 13.0 PER) and (Center) Steven Adams (8.6 PTS, 59.3% FG, 9.8 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 15.3 PER) arrive in return. So with all that said, how have the remade Pelicans managed after all these changes, you ask? Well, it appears that this roster consists of a bunch of disparate pieces that Van Gundy has struggled to put together into a single cohesive unit; after getting off to a tepid 3-2 start, New Orleans went on to lose eight out of their next nine games, and have now lost all but three of their last thirteen contests. The 61-year old maestro has always implemented shooting to create spacing for his offense to work properly, but that has been an element lost on this unit, ranking twenty-seventh in three-pointers made (10.9) and twenty-eighth in percentage (34.0%), while ranking in the bottom third of the league in both assists (23.5) and turnovers (15.3). Defensively, they’ve been torched from beyond the arc, yielding 15.7 threes per game (29th Overall) on 37.8% shooting (22nd Overall), while permitting a disappointing 27.5 assists (29th Overall). However, they’ve relentlessly gotten to the free-throw line, netting 17.8 free-throws (7th Overall) on 25.0 attempts (4th Overall) with a stellar free-throw/field goal attempt ratio of .203 (10th Overall), while proving to be a force on the glass, ranking in the top-six of the NBA in both offensive (25.6%) and defensive (79.9%) rebounding percentage. Of course, Williamson at 6-7, 284 lbs is a LOAD to handle in the paint, while Adams has long been one of the league’s finest on the boards.
“No matter who we put out there, we’re trying to win and right now it’s not working. It’s frustrating to everybody. Frustrating to fans, frustrating to our players, frustrating to everybody in our organization, and probably most frustrating to me because it’s my responsibility, ultimately, and I’m not figuring out a way to get it done. But we’re going to keep working at it.”Stan Van Gundy on the Pelicans struggles thus far, particularly after their collapse in Monday’s 118-109 loss at home to the Kings
When we last saw the Pelicans, they dropped their second straight game as they were run off their homecourt by the Sacramento Kings in a 118-109 affair. This one was decided in the Fourth Quarter, folks, as the hosts entered the final period leading 94-87 only get blown out 31-15 over the final twelve minutes of play. The hosts led by as many as ten midway through Fourth Quarter, but the hosts responded with an abrupt 16-3 run to retake the lead. With the aforementioned Adams a late scratch due to a strained calf, the Pelicans didn’t enjoy the advantages on the glass (Minus-7) and in the paint (Plus-5) that they typically do, as they shot a miserable 39.6% from the field, including 9-of-30 from downtown (30.0%), but managed to compensate for those shortcomings via extra possessions, attempting thirteen more field goal attempts than the visiting side. When you miss a lot of shots, there are going to be chances to rebound the basketball, particularly on the offensive glass which is where the Pelicans went to work, pulling down seventeen offensive rebounds, oftentimes leading to easy second-chance shots at the rim. They also forced twenty turnovers on the night, which led to twenty-five points the other way. Six different players scored in double-figures for the home side, led by the aforementioned Ingram, who shot just 6-of-20 from the floor (30.0%), including 1-of-7 from the perimeter (14.3%). Williamson finished with seventeen points and eight rebounds, while Ball and Bledsoe chipped in with fourteen points apiece. Hart added fifteen points and thirteen rebounds off the bench, along with four assists and a pair of steals. They’ll be seeing (Kings Point Guard) De’Aaron Fox in their nightmares for the foreseeable future though, with the youngster going off for thirty-eight points in the affair, scoring seventeen straight at one point in the Fourth Quarter, outscoring the Pelicans all by himself in the period. New Orleans will be looking to get back on the right track against a Phoenix side that hammered them in a 111-86 drubbing back on December 29th, in which they were outscored by a whopping FORTY-EIGHT points from beyond the arc, with the aforementioned Paul and Booker accounting for a scant seventeen points.