7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Suns -2, Over/Under: 215.0
Arguably the most surprising matchup of these playoffs will either end tonight or extend to a decisive seventh chapter, as the top-seeded Phoenix Suns battle the upstart New Orleans Pelicans in Game Five of their First Round Series from Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. If you want proof that the postseason is a completely different animal in comparison to the regular season, look no further than this particular affair; after racing through their schedule and earning home court throughout the playoffs, the Suns (56-18, 1st in Western Conference) have suddenly found themselves in a street fight with the only team to reach the playoffs with a losing record. So, what in the name of Kevin Johnson has happened here, you ask? Well, despite winning a franchise record FIFTY-SIX games, and winning eight more contests than the next best team in the league, the 2021-2022 campaign wasn’t without its challenges for Phoenix, who aside from living with the regret of wasting a 2-0 lead in last summer’s NBA Finals, were forced to persevere without the services of their two most prominent players, namely (All-Star Swingman) 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) and (All-NBA 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). The former missed seven games back in early December with a left hamstring strain, while the latter was sidelined for fifteen consecutive games after the All-Star Break rehabbing from a broken right thumb, with (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ troops posting a 16-6 record without them. This is significant because is currently on the mend with a strain to his other hamstring, which he suffered shortly before halftime of Game Two after erupting for thirty-one points in the first half of that eventual 125-114 defeat. Following the game, Williams stated the 25-year-old would miss up to 2-3 weeks of action, with his absence leaving a profound effect on the reigning Western Conference Champions. Between Games Three and Five, the Suns have REALLY been up against it, besting the Pelicans by a narrow margin of 1.0 points per game, and despite shooting a stellar 50.4% from the field, are struggling mightily from the perimeter (26.3%), while getting hammered on the glass (-8.7) and at the charity stripe (-12.0). However, as we’ve stated already, this is a team that is no stranger to adversity and has thus exhibited their resilience on more than one occasion. In addition to persevering without Booker or Paul for stretches this season, they managed to win both the first two entries of last summer’s West Finals while the veteran floor general entered COVID protocols. Furthermore, no team in the Association was more successful on the road this year, amassing 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. In Game Three, their first without Booker, the Suns pulled out a tough 114-111 victory in the Big Easy, thanks in large part to strong performances from the Paul and (young Center) 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), as both totaled twenty-eight points with the former dishing out fourteen assists and the latter racking up seventeen rebounds and three steals. And speaking of Paul, one can’t help but feel that if Phoenix does is to survive this affair, then it will be the 36-year-old who will lead them out of the wilderness. Indeed, his venerable career has come full circle in this series, for it was New Orleans who drafted him with the Fourth Overall Pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, kickstarting what has been nothing short of a Hall of Fame run. A 12-time All-Star and 10-time All-NBA selection, Paul has led the league in assists four times, as well as steals on six occasions, while Rookie of the Year honors back in 2005-2006, an Olympic Gold Medal and a place on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team to boot. While the only thing missing from his CV is a Larry O’Brien trophy, it can’t be overstated the impact that he’s had on the many franchises that he’s played for. Consider this: of those five different clubs he’s competed for, he’s led four of them to franchise-bests in victories and has clearly served as the catalyst to this renaissance in the desert. The Suns improved by SEVENTEEN games after his arrival last season, ending a decade of mediocrity in the process. Furthermore, his influence has sparked a wealth of internal growth throughout the team, with Booker blossoming into a full-blown star, and the likes of Ayton, (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), and (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) to name a few that have seen their stock rise considerably. And speaking of Bridges, he was a HUGE component of their success in Game Five’s 112-97 victory, posting a playoff career-high thirty-one points on a healthy 12-of-17 shooting (70.6%), including a perfect 4-of-4 from downtown, along with five rebounds, two assists, a steal, and FOUR blocks. Paul totaled twenty-two points and sixteen assists despite looking clearly fatigued down the stretch, while Ayton added nineteen points and nine rebounds, with (journeyman 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) chipping in with a valuable twelve points off the bench. As a team, the hosts shot well yet again (50.0% FG) but earned their advantage from three (10-of-27) and off points via turnovers (23), as Williams’ charges outscored the visiting side by a combined twenty-six points in those categories. And by now, we’re all acquainted with the most damning statistic following Tuesday’s encounter: when tied 2-2, the winner of Game Five has gone on to win said series over 80% of the time. With rumors that Booker could make an early return tonight, that chances of this one ending in Game Six are increasing by the hour.
Meanwhile, there is a feeling that the longer that this series goes, the more dangerous the Pelicans (36-46, 9th in Western Conference) in fact become, for after all, there is literally ZERO pressure on these young upstarts from the Big Easy. Indeed, NOBODY expected this out of New Orleans, who entered the campaign with their third different Head Coach in as many years, while the franchise’s crown jewel, (former No. One Overall Pick) Zion Williamson continued to rehab from a lingering foot injury with the timetable for his return (frustratingly) everchanging. However, all the credit in the world goes to Willie Green, his staff, and his players for never giving up on a season that provided them every excuse to do so. Simply put, 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 in the name of Baron Davis 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. In this series, the lithe Wing has enjoyed a coming out party, averaging 28.2 points on 48.5% shooting, including 42.9% from beyond the arc, along with 6.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists, while TORCHING Phoenix for a franchise postseason record thirty-seven points in Game Two’s 125-114 victory. He’s been a major problem for the Suns, who haven’t been able to keep him, or his teammates for that matter, off the charity stripe, which has proven to be one of the biggest disparities in this matchup; New Orleans has attempted FIFTY-THREE more free-throws in this series, leading to a 39-point advantage in that department, as Ingram has knocked down 36-of-44 attempts on his own (81.8%). Furthermore, (massive Center) Jonas Valanciunas (17.8 PTS, 54.4% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 82.0% FT, 11.4 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.2 PER) has been a wrecking ball in the paint, averaging 15.4 points and 15.6 rebounds through five games, playing into his team’s growing rebounding advantage (+56), particularly on the offensive glass where they’ve secured THRITY-NINE more boards, leading to a wealth of second-chance opportunities. And let’s not forget about those rookies, who have each played a crucial role in this series. The tandem of Jones and Alvarado have taken turns defending the aforementioned Paul, with the latter proving to be an absolute pest in picking up full court. As great as CP3 has been throughout his career, he’s shown his age at times in this series, with these two young guns showing him NO deference on the hardwood; in the two games that New Orleans won, he scored a combined twenty-one points, including FOUR in Game Four, shooting 7-of-24 from the field (29.1%). Even in Tuesday’s affair he went nearly two whole quarters without a single point, giving further credence to how hard he’s being defended. With that said, Green’s charges were the subject of tough defense themselves in that contest; the visitors shot just 40.0% from the field, including a dismal 5-of-25 from three (20.0%), while committing more turnovers (15) than assists (14). As we stated earlier, those mistakes turned into twenty-three points for the hosts, which are absolute killers in the playoffs. Trailing by as many eighteen points, they managed to cut the deficit to six late in the fourth period largely to that aforementioned residence from the free-throw line (28-of-35) where they were +12 and on the offensive glass where they were +7. With the crowd at Smoothie King sure to raucous, we’ll be interested to see if these young Pelicans have the requisite killer instinct to force a Game Seven this weekend. After all, Green knows these Suns well, having served as an assistant under the aforementioned Williams over the last two seasons prior to his arrival in New Orleans. However, if this is in fact their last showing until the fall, then one would have to be excited about the future of this franchise, particularly if they can get Williamson back on the hardwood.