Despite the absence of leading scorer and All-Star Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns secured a 114-111 road win over the New Orleans on Friday night to take a 2-1 lead in their first-round matchup. Suns guard and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was simply phenomenal down the stretch, scoring 19 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to fend off the pesky Pelicans, while dishing out a game-high 14 assists.
Deandre Ayton was a beast inside, putting up 28 points and 17 rebounds to go with three steals and a block, while Mikal Bridges added 17 points and went 9-for-9 from the free throw line, making some clutch ones down the stretch. The Pelicans were led by 34 points and seven rebounds from Brandon Ingram, while his running mate CJ McCollum added 30 points and seven assists.
Game 4 will take place on Sunday in New Orleans, but before we get to that, let's take a look at four key takeaways from Game 3 followed by a recap of our live updates from the evening.
Through three quarters, Paul had nine points and had largely looked to set up his teammates while staying within the offense. When the fourth quarter came around and the game was close, however, Paul went to work in the way only he can. With the Suns trailing by a point with six minutes left in the game, Paul made four consecutive mid-range jumpers to give his team a five-point lead.
Paul set these up by passing the ball to teammates (mostly Ayton) for most of the game. In crunch time, he used the extra cushion to get to his spots and make jumpers that are essentially layups for him at this point in his career.
"In that fourth quarter, [Ayton] told me at the timeout, he said, 'C, I'mma get you loose. Shoot the ball,' " Paul said after the game. "Him just being outspoken like that is big for our team, because we need him and we trust him."
In addition to his wizardry in the mid-range, Paul also knocked down all four of his free throws as the Pelicans were playing the foul game in the final minute to ensure there was no chance of a comeback. With Booker out of the lineup, Paul knew he had to go to work as a scorer down the stretch, and he executed brilliantly.
2. Bully ball
During the regular season, the Suns were second in the league with 16.2 mid-range shot attempts per game, according to NBA.com. It makes sense since these are often the shots that defenses bait offenses into taking, and Phoenix has two of the best midrange shooters in the league with Booker and Paul. The Suns changed up their game plan with Booker out on Friday night, however, eschewing mid-range jumpers in favor of good, old-fashioned bully ball.
Phoenix outscored the Pelicans 64-40 in the paint and, excluding Paul, attempted just four shots from the mid-range all game long, making three of them. The rest came from inside the key or behind the 3-point line.
Ayton was a monster inside, connecting on everything from dunks to jump hooks en route to his playoff career-high 28 points.
Deandre Ayton was impressive tonight. Scored in every way for the Suns with 28 points on 20 shots. Post ups. Off the dribble. Hit a 3 too. Ayton has come a long way. Without Booker he stepped up like he needed to before CP3 owned the 4th. pic.twitter.com/lc3D3N5hFq— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 23, 2022
Ayton wasn't the only Suns center to do damage, either. JaVale McGee was the main offensive threat off the bench, scoring 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting, all of which came inside the paint, as you might expect. The Suns managed to win despite making only four 3-pointers on the night, which is tough to do in the modern NBA unless you absolutely dominate the paint.
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3. Stars disappear for New Orleans
Ingram was phenomenal on Friday, particularly in the third quarter, but there was a stretch toward the end of the game when he was noticeably absent. Ingram checked in at the 6:32 mark of the fourth quarter and had just one shot attempt -- he knocked down an elbow jumper -- as Paul and the Suns built the lead to nine points with less than a minute left. Ingram scored nine points in the final 49 seconds, but they were desperation shots with the game already out of reach.
During that crucial time when Ingram only had one shot attempt, Jose Alvarado missed a tough layup and Larry Nance Jr. missed two 3-pointers. McCollum's layup with 1:55 left was his first shot attempt since the 7:53 mark. Alvarado and Nance were both great for the Pelicans, but the Pelicans simply needed to find a way to get their two best scorers and playmakers opportunities down the stretch. Instead, they were unable to stem the tide, and the Chris Paul machine sent them home with a loss.
4. Tempers flare
Pelicans big man Jaxson Hayes and Suns forward Jae Crowder were going back and forth with some trash talk early in the game, and things reached a boil with just over five minutes left before halftime. As Crowder prepared to go after a rebound, Hayes came crashing in from the perimeter, delivering a pretty vicious shove to Crowder's back. After review, Hayes was assessed a flagrant 2 and ejected from the game.
Hayes has been crucial for the Pelicans on both ends this season, so there's no telling how much his absence affected the outcome of the game. It will also be interesting to monitor how Hayes and Crowder interact for the rest of the series.