Point God? How about Point-Oh-My-God!
If you were thinking Suns point guard Chris Paul couldn’t possibly do more in the first round series against the Pelicans, couldn’t possibly surpass scoring 19 points in the fourth quarters of two previous victories, well, what were you thinking?
He did it Thursday by not just willing the Suns to a 115-99 victory to close out the first-round series, but by putting the whole organization on his shoulders and leading it into the second round.
Paul made all 14 shots he took and finished with 33 points, 23 of which came in the second half.That’s an NBA playoff record for most field goals made without a miss.
Ever see anything like it?
“Nobody has seen this,” teammate Devin Booker said. “14-for-14. That’s the first time for all of us.”
Paul made history in the place his career started in 2005, when the Pelicans were the Hornets and Paul was 20 years old. The city embraced him, he said, and he had fist bumps for long-time arena employees and some fans. Pelicans coach Willie Green is one of his closest friends. And Paul wore a chain to the game that was given to him by rapper Lil Wayne, who is from New Orleans and became friends with Paul nearly two decades ago.
“It’s unbelievably special,” Paul said. “This is my family.”
Not everyone in New Orleans loves Paul. Some chanted at him profanely in Game 3, and Pelicans backup point guard Jose Alvarado and Paul aren’t going to be text buddies in the off season.
Paul was assessed a flagrant 1 foul for kicking Alvarado in the groin on a jump shot in Game 5. And Thursday, Paul hit Alvarado with an elbow that caused the rookie to lose a tooth.
No foul was called.
“He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame,” Alvarado said, “but he knows my name now, too.”
The series became chippy early and advanced to bruising. Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum blasted Suns wing Cameron Johnson to the ground on a fast break Thursday and was fortunate to be assessed only a flagrant 1 foul. Suns forward Jae Crowder was run over in Game 3, and his penchant for drawing fouls made him a villain in the Big Easy.
“F Jae Crowder!” became a favorite chant at Smoothie King, and on Thursday a couple fans even wore shirts with the phrase on the front. Crowder wore one to the post-game press conference, a gift from Booker and assistant coach Jarrett Jack, who acquired it before the game.
Booker, who also sported the t-shirt after the game, called 20,000 people chanting your name “respect at its highest level.” People who didn’t know Crowder at the beginning of the series, he said, “do now.”
Crowder said he planned to have the shirt framed.
And then there was the 14-of-14 performance Thursday.
No shots Paul took were more important than the six he took in the third quarter.
At halftime, things looked bleak for the Suns. Not the Suns of the regular season, who routinely brushed off 10-point deficits like they were lint. But for the Suns of these playoffs, who struggled to score in four of the previous five third quarters against the Pelicans.
Then Paul took over. He had made four shots in the first half and figured, hey, I’m feeling good, I should probably be shooting more.
So he shot more. Jumper after jumper after jumper. Six shots. Six makes. Thirteen points. And by the end of the third quarter, the Suns had cut the 10-point margin to three.
In the grand scheme, the Suns didn’t need a savior Thursday night, not with a 3-2 series lead over the Pelicans. But they got one. Again.
In the first half, the Suns looked like they did in two previous losses to the Pelicans. The grit, the force that coach Monty Williams so often mentions as being necessary to a championship? That looked in short supply.
And it was clear early on that heroics probably weren’t going to come from Booker, who returned after missing three games with a hamstring strain.
For the first half at least, it looked as if the Suns made a mistake in bringing Booker back, that the more sensible thing would have been to rest him for a Game 7 Saturday in Phoenix.
Booker wasn’t himself through much of the game. His shot was off and he wasn’t aggressive in beating defenders off the dribble.
He took just 12 shots, scored only 13 points.
Williams limited Booker’s minutes, including not starting him in the second half, and admitted later he probably played Booker more than he should have (32 minutes).
“I thought we were going to have a fist fight over there, the look he gave me,” Williams said of Booker starting the second half on the bench. “He didn’t look like he was dragging or laboring it at all. He told me, ‘Coach, I feel fine, strong.'”
Booker appeared to improve through the game, which is good news for the next round of the series. And the guard had a big three-pointer later that helped put the Pelicans away.
The Pelicans, as always, prodded and pestered. For a time, they beat the Suns at their own game, forcing turnovers and scoring easily in transition.
Williams wasn’t happy at halftime, and the team was showed video of a few places, including Pelicans forward Larry Nance, Jr., pulling down one of his six offensive rebounds.
“We talked at halftime about the spirit of our team,” Williams said. “I had a few personal things to say. They (the Pelicans) were playing with their heart, just playing harder than us. Every time we win a game in this series, the next game we come into it and didn’t have enough juice.”
It was impossible for Paul’s teammates to watch what he was doing and not tag along. It was not a one-man show.
Center Deandre Ayton scored 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Forward Mikal Bridges added 18. Johnson had a vital offensive rebound and put-back and finished with 13 points.
One sequence late in the game was quintessential Suns. Down one with 2½ minutes left, Paul penetrated and found Ayton with a lob and a dunk. Booker hit a three pointer the next time down, and then Bridges stripped the ball away from McCollum, sprinted downcourt and dunked.
Just like that, the Suns led by 4 points with 1:28 remaining and they managed to keep the Pelicans at a distance.
Now, the Suns have three days off before the second round begins Monday in Phoenix.
But “off” is a relative term, according to Williams.
“We’re not going to take three or four days off,” he said. “We’ll be in the gym more than you think, just because we want to keep our blades sharp, if you will, for the next round.”
No blade is sharper than Paul’s. Booker suffered no setbacks. The rest of the Suns stepped up. They closed out a series on the road in front of a rabid crowd. That’s not easy to do, even when you’re a No. 1 seed and the opponent is No. 8.
It was far from easy, but with Booker back, the Suns are whole. And as dangerous as they were when they started the playoffs.
Credit: Kent Somers