Capping off the Day 2 action was the top-seeded Phoenix Suns hosting the No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans. On paper, the Suns were a heavy favorite but, as we have seen this weekend, anything can happen in the playoffs and the Pelicans knocked off two teams this past week to earn this opportunity. New Orleans made their run to make this game interesting in the second half, cutting the deficit to six points, but Chris Paul and the Suns were not going to drop Game 1 as the defending Western Conference champs clamped down and came away with a 110-99 win.
Earlier, the Miami Heat made easy work of the Atlanta Hawks, 115-91 to take a 1-0 series lead. Next, the Celtics defeated the Nets, 115-114, thanks to Jayson Tatum's incredible buzzer-beating layup. In the third game of the day, the Bucks and Bulls played a thriller that ended in a 93-86 win for Milwaukee.
NBA playoffs schedule, scores
- 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 are three key takeaways from what turned out to be quite the final game of the opening weekend of the playoffs.
1. Kneel before the Point God
As we age, we tend to scale back our professional responsibilities. In a perfect world, we've found enough success by our golden years to hire the right young people to carry the load so that we can step in only when it is necessary. That's the stage Chris Paul's career is in right now. He's cultivated such a deep pool of youngsters into such a finely tuned machine that he can pace himself through most of a game, but when he needs to turn it on, he's got more than enough gas in the tank to do so.
That's what happened in this game. The Suns led most of the way due to their stellar defense. His teammates did most of the scoring. But when New Orleans cut the deficit to six in the fourth quarter, Paul turned back into the point god. Behold, this sequence of consecutive fourth-quarter possessions:
With the Suns up seven, we got the following:
- Chris Paul 3.
- Chris Paul assist.
- Chris Paul 3.
- Chris Paul 3.
- Chris Paul layup.
- Chris Paul jumper.
That pushed the lead back up to 14. Game over. This is, in essence, what has made the Suns so special this season. In the first three quarters, their net ratings rank sixth, seventh and third, respectively. In the fourth? It jumps up to first by a country mile. They played 130 clutch minutes this season and won them by a total of 107 points. When Chris Paul kicks things into overdrive, the Suns go from great to historic.
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2. Ghost Defenders
Here's a wonderful stat, via Andrew Lopez of ESPN: The Pelicans shot 4-of-18 on uncontested shots in the first half. Those are the shots that defenses can't affect… or can they? The Pelicans obviously missed most of the shots that Phoenix did affect as well, but their defensive strategy was so aggressive that it changed the way New Orleans operated even when possessions went 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 from deep. So can Jonas Valanciunas and Naji Marshall, who can both make 3s, but not often enough to impact a defense. The Suns took advantage of this by sending as many defenders at the ball as possible. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum barely found an open look throughout the entire half.
When they did find them, they rushed. That's what happens when a defense plays an ultra-aggressive style that an offense isn't suited for. Even when they had space, in their heads, they knew it was fleeting and it affected their shots. The Pelicans of course adjusted and had a strong offensive half. A similar story played out in their play-in victory over the Clippers. But the Suns are a different level of defense. They're so good that they manage to contest shots that they don't actually contest.
3. Dance with Nance
New Orleans doesn't exactly have a good option to use at center against Phoenix. There are only a handful of big men in basketball who 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 small. Each has drawbacks. All three are going to play meaningful minutes.
Hayes and Valanciunas lost their minutes by 11 points apiece. Nance lost his by just three. It's a tiny sample, but the Clippers game was somewhat similar. The Pelicans came alive offensively only after they went small. Nance isn't the scorer that Valanciunas is, but he can cover as much ground as Hayes does and allow for better scorers to play elsewhere. His playmaking is similarly valuable. His 14 points and three assists don't do enough to show just how impactful he can be offensively.
Nance played only 20 minutes in this game. Valanciunas got 31. As the series progresses, we're probably going to see those two numbers flip. Nance sacrifices the rebounding advantage that Valanciunas brings, and he's so small that DeAndre Ayton can get away with almost anything against him one-on-one offensively. But in these high-leverage games, it's just starting to look like the Pelicans need Nance's versatility on the floor as much as possible.