9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Suns -1.5, Over/Under: 216.5
The playoffs take yet another turn as the cruel hand of fate reveals its hand as the Phoenix Suns look to regroup in the wake of a major loss as the battle the upstart New Orleans Pelicans in Game Three of their First Round Series from Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. From the beginning of the regular season to its conclusion, nobody would argue with you (at least not here, anyway) that the Suns (56-18, 1st in Western Conference) were indeed the best team in the National Basketball Association in 2021-2022, owning an eight-game lead on the next closest side in winning a franchise record FIFTY-SIX games. However, the postseason is a different monster altogether, particularly for a franchise that came oh, so close to winning their first NBA Championship last summer; after racing out to a 2-0 lead, Phoenix’s title hopes eroded over the course of the following four contests, as they were eliminated on their own floor. This season as featured a deeper, wiser, and ultimately more determined team in their pursuit of that elusive Larry O’Brien trophy, but they appear to have hit a rather significant roadblock of late, as (All-Star Guard) Devin Booker (26.8 PTS, 46.6% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 21.3 PER) suffered what has been reported to be a Grade One Hamstring Strain in Tuesday night’s stunning 125-114 loss at home to the Pelicans in Game Two. The initial prognosis is projecting the 25-year-old to miss up to 2-3 weeks, which needless to say, is a MAJOR revelation for this series and beyond. So, let’s unpack this turn of events, shall we? First and foremost, following last year’s star turn, Booker has enjoyed the finest season of his professional career, logging career-highs in a slew of categories, including points (26.8), three-point percentage (38.3%), rebounds (5.0), steals (1.1), and PER (21.3). After dropping twenty-five points in Easter Sunday’s 110-99 victory, the sharpshooter erupted for THIRTY-ONE points on a torrid 12-of-19 shooting (63.2%), including 7-of-11 from beyond the arc (63.6%) in the first half of Game Two, before apparently straining that right hamstring shortly before heading to the bench prior to intermission. Without his presence, the hosts were outscored 69-53 in the second half, netting a dismal 3-of-14 from downtown (21.4%), while the visitors ran rampant on 67.5% shooting and 8-of-11 from three (72.7%). Indeed, (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ troops looked stagnant on the offensive end after halftime and were particularly disappointing on the defensive side of the hardwood as New Orleans repeatedly torched them in transition. So, with Booker assured to miss the rest of this series, what do the Suns do? Well, as big of a blow as this is, Phoenix has proven that they are capable of adapting to the situation at hand; the All-Star missed seven games back in early December with a left hamstring strain, and the team did quite fine winning five of those outings. On the season, his teammates are 8-6 without him. Furthermore, missing one of their biggest guns for a prolonged period in the playoffs is nothing new for these guys either. Think back to last year’s postseason run in which (All-NBA Point Guard) Chris Paul (14.7 PTS, 49.3% FG, 31.7% 3FG, 83.7% FT, 4.4 REB, 10.8 AST, 1.9 STL, 20.8 PER) missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals after testing positive for COVID-19, with his teammates managing to win both games anyway. Hell, they even went without him for fifteen consecutive games after the All-Star Break while he rehabbed from a broken right thumb, persevering with an 11-4 record during that stretch. Lastly, no team has been better on the road this season than the Suns, who put together a stellar 32-9 record, averaging 114.2 points on 47.9% from the field, including 35.2% from three, and dishing out 26.8 assists in comparison to committing just 12.1 turnovers, all the while yielding 108.1 points on 44.9% shooting, including 33.4% from long range, and 23.0 assists opposed to forcing 14.6 turnovers. And this is where they’ll have to rely upon the venerable Paul, who even at the ripe old age of thirty-six remains among the elite at his position. The catalyst for Phoenix’s resurrection last year, the twelve-time All-Star’s influence created a ripple effect throughout the roster, with many of their young talents making a major leap in their respective development. (Former No. One Overall Pick) Deandre Ayton (17.2 PTS, 63.4% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 74.6% FT, 10.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.9 PER) went from being a bit of a project to a solid two-way contributor, while (versatile swingman) Mikal Bridges (14.2 PTS, 53.4% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 83.4% FT, 4.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 14.4 PER) evolved into one of the most potent 3 & D performers in the NBA, to say nothing of the likes of (young sharpshooter) Cameron Johnson (12.5 PTS, 46.0% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 86.0% FT, 4.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.2 PER) and (backup Point Guard) Cameron Payne (10.8 PTS, 40.9% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 84.3% FT, 3.0 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.8 PER), who have settled into defined roles alongside the man who has been referred to by many as the Point God. Of course, his influence could be felt none more so than with Booker, who developed into a coldblooded killer overnight, with the tandem emerging as arguably the best backcourt in the league. And if Game One was any indication, then CP3 should be fine carrying a larger scoring load; Paul carved the Pels up for thirty points on an efficient 12-of-16 shooting (75.0%), including 4-of-6 from the perimeter (66.7%), along with seven rebounds, ten assists, and three steals. So, what we’re trying to say here is that there is no reason for anyone in the Valley to panic at the news of Booker’s absence. Does it make their road more difficult? Sure. Does it kill their championship hopes? Absolutely not. Moving forward, Williams will obviously be preaching attention to detail on the defensive end, particularly in transition where they were outscored 16-9 in Game Two, with a miserable showing on the glass (-10) playing no small role in those matters. Furthermore, the Suns must do a better job of running the Pelicans off the three-point line, where they rained down 17-of-30 triples (56.7%) for a +12 advantage.
Meanwhile, don’t look now, but we may finally be seeing the emergence of the Pelicans (36-46, 9th in Western Conference) into a postseason threat, particularly in the wake of the aforementioned Booker’s injury. Before we get into that watershed Game Two, let’s take a look on how New Orleans got here, shall we? After proving to be one of the more passively dysfunctional organizations in the Association over the past few years, the Pels hired their third Head Coach in as many years, with Willie Green the latest figure to attempt to unlock the lofty potential to be found on this roster. The 40-year-old had spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach with the Warriors followed by the Suns, to say nothing of his twelve-year playing career in the NBA, and he would need to channel all of that experience into the job awaiting him. To say nothing of their recent struggles, this is a franchise that entered the campaign under the cloud of (former No. One Overall Pick) Zion Williamson’s prolonged rehab from knee surgery; this saga lingered throughout Green’s first season in charge, with the talented, yet frequently absent Williamson sitting out the entirety of 2021-2022, as rumors raged of setbacks and dissatisfaction between, he, his camp, and the organization. Say what you will about the situation, but the fact that the oft-injured star has managed to play in just EIGHTY-FIVE games over the course of three seasons is a major reason why this team has failed to launch over and over again, making the job even more difficult for a first-time Head Coach. Though he had quite the pedigree, things did NOT start smoothly for the Green, who watched as his charges began the season on a miserable 1-12 slide, before amassing a dismal 8-21 record by the middle of December. Undeterred, he and the Pelicans continued to grind, with their fortunes eventually turning in the month of February, when they pulled a seismic trade with the Trail Blazers, acquiring the services of (veteran sharpshooter) C.J. McCollum (24.3 PTS, 49.3% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 66.7% FT, 4.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 21.9 PER) and (athletic Forward) Larry Nance Jr. (7.3 PTS, 55.1% FG, 100.0% FT, 4.3 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 14.2 PER). New Orleans would go on to win four straight games following the deal and would go 13-10 after the All-Star Break to secure a spot in the play-in, besting the Spurs in a 113-103 affair in the Big Easy, before heading to Los Angeles to face the Clippers. This one proved to be their test in every sense of the word; after wasting a 15-point lead in the second quarter and falling behind by as many as twelve points in the fourth quarter, Green’s troops stormed back after an impassioned speech during a timeout, thrashing the hosts 31-17 in the final period en route to a triumphant 105-101 victory and their first playoff appearance in four years. So, what has changed for New Orleans, you ask? Well, apart from the arrival of McCollum, who has been an absolute GODSEND for this team, Green’s decision to thrust a trio of rookies, namely Herb Jones (9.5 PTS, 47.6% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 84.0% FT, 3.8 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 12.3 PER), Jose Alverado (6.1 PTS, 44.6% FG, 29.1% 3FG, 67.9% FT, 1.9 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 16.4 PER), and Trey Murphy (5.4 PTS, 39.4% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 88.2% FT, 2.4 REB, 0.6 AST, 12.5 PER) into the rotation has paid dividends over the second half of the campaign, while the continued ascension of (All-Star Forward) Brandon Ingram (22.7 PTS, 46.1% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 82.6% FT, 5.8 REB, 5.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 18.7 PER) has provided with Pels with a multi-faceted offensive threat. Case in point: as amazing as the aforementioned Booker was in the first half of Game Two, Ingram was every bit as fantastic, finishing with a franchise postseason record THIRTY-SEVEN points on 13-of-21 shooting from the field (61.9%), including a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond the arc (100.0%) and 8-of-8 from the charity stripe (100.0%), along with eleven rebounds and nine assists. Twenty-six of his point total came in the second half, as the hosts simply had no answers for the lithe swingman, who very nearly registered a triple double. McCollum added twenty-three points to the effort on 7-of-18 shooting (38.9%), though buried 6-of-10 attempts from downtown (60.0%), along with eight rebounds and nine assists of his own, while Nance chipped in with thirteen points and six rebounds off the bench, and the Jones finished with fourteen points. As we stated earlier, New Orleans really got after Phoenix in transition, with a 32-25 advantage in defensive rebounds helping ignite their fast break. On the night, the Pelicans shot a healthy 54.8% against one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, knocked down 17-of-30 treys (56.7%), and assisted on thirty-two of their forty-six field goals. Moving forward, if there is one thing in particular that they must clean up, its turnovers; after fourteen giveaways in Game One, Green’s charges committed seventeen on Tuesday night, which the home side were oh-so happy to turn into TWENTY-EIGHT points going the other way. This was after the Suns turned those fourteen turnovers on Sunday into twenty-one points, parlaying to a differential of -19 in that department, which simply cannot continue as this series progresses. With this affair shifting to Smoothie King Center, look for Green, who played with Paul for two years from 2012-2014, to attempt to pressure his former teammate early in the possession, while trying to speed up the pace whenever he can. If this series gets bogged down into a halfcourt game, then Phoenix has the advantage, but as long as they can get out and run, the Pels will continue to be dangerous.