Suns vs. Pelicans Game 1 Takeaway: Chris Paul takes over the stretch to lead Phoenix to victory

Closing out the action on Day 2 was the top seeded Phoenix Suns, who hosted the No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans. On paper, the Suns were big favorites, but as we’ve seen this weekend, anything can happen in the playoffs, and the Pelicans beat two teams last week to earn that opportunity. New Orleans made its run to make this game interesting in the second half, cutting the lead to six points, but Chris Paul and the Suns didn’t want to drop Game 1 as the defending Western Conference champions got persistent and with one 110-99 win.

Previously, the Miami Heat made it easy for the Atlanta Hawks, 115-91, to take a 1-0 lead. Next, the Celtics defeated the Nets, 115-114, thanks to Jayson Tatum’s incredible summer-beat layup. In the third game of the day, the Bucks and Bulls played a thrill that ended in a 93-86 victory for Milwaukee.

NBA playoff schedule, results

  • Miami Heat 115, Atlanta Hawks 91
  • Boston Celtics 115, Brooklyn Nets 114
  • Milwaukee Bucks 93, Chicago Bulls 86
  • Phoenix Suns 110, New Orleans Pelicans 99

Here’s the full playoff bracket and weekly TV schedule.

Here are three key takeaways from the final game of the playoffs opening weekend.

1. Kneel before the point god

As we age, we tend to scale back our professional commitments. In a perfect world, we succeed enough in our golden years to hire the right young people to carry the burden so we can step in only when necessary. This is where Chris Paul’s career is right now. He’s cultivated such a large pool of young players into such a finely tuned machine that he can propel himself through most of a game, but when he needs to turn it on he has more than enough gas in the tank to do so .

That happened in this game. The Suns led most of the way due to their stellar defenses. His teammates scored the most goals. But when New Orleans reduced the deficit to six in the fourth quarter, Paul became the points god again. Behold this string of back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter:

With the suns on seven we got the following:

  • Chris Paul 3.
  • Supported by Chris Paul.
  • Chris Paul 3.
  • Chris Paul 3.
  • Chris Paul hangs up.
  • Chris Paul sweater.

This pushed the lead back to the 14th game. That’s essentially what made the Suns so special this season. In the first three quarters, their net ratings are sixth, seventh and third. In the fourth? It initially jumps up a country mile. They played 130 clutch minutes that season and won it with a total of 107 points. When Chris Paul kicks things into high gear, the Suns go from great to historic.

2. Ghost defenders

Here’s a wonderful statistic, via ESPN’s Andrew Lopez: The Pelicans shot 4 of 18 on undisputed shots in the first half. Those are the shots the defense can’t control… or can they? The Pelicans obviously missed most of the shots, which Phoenix also influenced, but their defensive strategy was so aggressive that it changed the way New Orleans acted even when possession was right.

The Pelicans play an unusual number of non-shooting threats for a playoff team. Herb Jones and Jaxson Hayes can largely be left alone. So can Jonas Valanciunas and Naji Marshall, both of whom can make 3s but not often enough to affect a defense. The Suns took advantage of this by sending as many defenders as possible to the ball. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum found little to look at throughout the half.

When they found her, they rushed. This is what happens when a defense plays an ultra-aggressive style that an offense isn’t suited to. Even if they had room in their heads, they knew it was fleeting and affecting their shots. The Pelicans came out naturally and had a strong offensive half. A similar story played out in their play-in win over the Clippers. But the suns are another layer of defense. They’re so good they manage to contest shots they don’t actually contest.

3. Dance with Nance

New Orleans doesn’t exactly have a great option to play center against Phoenix. There are only a handful of great men in basketball who will check every defensive box you need to check against them. Jonas Valanciunas is too slow. Jaxson Hayes is too raw. Larry Nance Jr. is too short. Everyone has disadvantages. All three will play meaningful minutes.

Hayes and Valanciunas lost their minutes by 11 points each. Nance lost his by just three. It’s a tiny example, but the Clippers game was somewhat similar. The pelicans only came alive offensively after they had grown small. Nance isn’t the goalscorer like Valanciunas but he can cover as much ground as Hayes and allow other better scorers to play elsewhere. His playmaking is similarly valuable. His 14 points and three assists aren’t enough to show how effective he can be offensively.

Nance only played 20 minutes in that game. Valanciunas has 31. As the series progresses, we’ll likely see these two numbers reverse. Nance sacrifices the rebound advantage that Valanciunas brings, and he’s small enough that DeAndre Ayton can get away with almost anything against him offensively. But in these high-leverage games right now, it looks like the Pelicans need Nance’s versatility on the floor as much as possible.

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