The team with the best regular season record coming into the playoffs and reigning Western Conference champions Phoenix Suns were picked by many to represent the West again in this year’s NBA Finals, after having their best regular season since the Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire days. They came into the first-round of these playoffs with a lot of momentum, going against the New Orleans Pelicans that were 10 games under .500 and coming off two “Play-In” games.
The Suns found themselves in a battle.
After the series was tied at two games after Game 4, the Suns took Game 5 back in Phoenix to go up 3-2 in the series and returned to New Orleans with a chance to close the series. They did just that. They finished off a gritty Pelicans team in front of their emotional home crowd on Thursday night 115-109 despite trailing by 10 at the half (58-48).
It was only right that the player that was drafted by the New Orleans franchise back in 2005 and played six full seasons, would be the one to close this series out on the same floor that he started his Hall-of-Fame career. Lead point guard Chris Paul put on a show for his former city that he said “raised him.” He had a closeout playoff game that will more than likely go down in history and be in the record books for a long time. He had a game-high 33 points and made all 14 of his field goal attempts. Paul did not miss anything all night, except while he was warming up before the game. He also made all four of his free throws and his only 3-pt attempt, and he also led his team with eight assist.
“You have no clue how emotional every game back here has been,” Paul said of being back in New Orleans. “It’s nice to do it here.”
He got big contributions from several key players. Big man DeAndre Ayton had 22 points and he was an efficient 10-12 from the field. Runner-up for DPOY Mikal Bridges coming off of a 31-pt performance in Game 5 had 18 points.
This Suns team got a huge boost to this game as they welcomed back their best player and All-Star Devin Booker who missed the past three games after straining his hamstring in the 2nd quarter of Game 2. He was back in the starting lineup, but head coach Monty Williams elected not to start Booker to begin the second half. He didn’t show any signs of a limp in his step as he scored 13 points. He knocked down arguably the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pt with 1:42 left in the 4th putting his team backup 106-104 that he said “caught him off guard” because he was so open; and they never trailed again.
“It was really nice to have him back,” Paul said of Booker. “All that pressure they’ve been doing against us the whole series, especially the last three games, was tough. (Booker) was on that left wing, and I don’t know if they forgot or didn’t realize who he was, but I saw how they were shifted.”
Cam Johnson who started in place of Booker the three games he was out chipped in with 13 points off the bench.
“I can’t even say because he’s done it so many times,” Coach Williams said of Paul’s performance. “This is probably No. 1 because it just happened, and I knew how special New Orleans is to him. He cares deeply about the city and the fans and the children. It’s probably No. 1 because it just happened,”
As the seconds dwindled down for the Pelicans, they got a standing ovation from the home crowd because this was a franchise that was 0-3 when trailing a series 3-2 in their playoff history and this team took the team with best record to six games. Seven players scored in double-figures led by a young star.
They also know they have a superstar that grew up right in front of our eyes in Brandon Ingram who is only 24 years-old. In just his first playoff series he averaged 28.2 ppg up six points from his regular season average (22.7 ppg). He led New Orleans with 21 points and 11 assist (2nd double-double of series) but had a game-high six turnovers.
CJ McCollum had 16 points and found himself in foul trouble picking up his 5th midway through the 3rd quarter. Larry Nance Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds, and big man Jonas Valanciunas who has had three double-doubles in this series finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
The New Orleans fans base will have a lot to look forward to for many years.
They have young talent that established themselves in these six games against the best team.
Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and Trent Murphy III all rookies made names for themselves and played an integral part to this team having a fighting chance in this series. Jones, out of Alabama who scored 16 points, showed the league why he was SEC defensive player of the year using his length to disrupt a lot of Phoenix’s offense. Murphy III, had his best game this series in this game with 12 points as he made 4-7 from deep and will come into next season as one of their best shooters. Alvarado, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech became a fan favorite for the energy and effort he brought in all six games. What stood out the most was his defense and no back down attitude towards Hall-of-Famer Paul all series.
“I feel like we exceeded expectations,” Jones said. “But we were right where we wanted to be.”
First year head coach Willie Green was part of the Phoenix staff just a year ago so this was an emotional series for him. “We got a great group and they fought all the way to the end. So we’re all proud of all of our guy’s. One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in basketball was coach against people that I love and care about. That was tough,” he said of facing his former team.
His team outscored the Suns in the paint 60-40 and the bench was a +18(38-20).
They did all this without former first overall pick Zion Williamson who did not play at all this season. He will and should be a key piece to help this team moving forward.
The Suns will now face the Dallas Mavericks in the Semi-Finals starting Monday night in Phoenix.
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