Paul’s perfection just enough for Suns to eliminate Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS – Chris Paul was perfect.
And he had to be.
The player who will be the first member of the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans to enter the Hall of Fame for his NBA career was as good as he has ever been Thursday night.
And for most of his Phoenix Suns’ Western Conference first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Paul made all 14 of his field-goal attempts, one of which was a 3-pointer, and all four of his free throw attempts as the Suns held off the Pelicans 115-109 in a rocking Smoothie King Center to claim the series 4-2.
The top-seeded Suns advance to face the Utah-Dallas winner while the Pelicans, who overcame a 1-12 start to the season and two elimination games in the play-in tournament, enter the offseason facing their brightest future in years.
As the final seconds ticked away, most of sellout crowd remained and stood and cheered. The standing ovations came in waves, a second happening at the final buzzer, another as the team headed to the locker room after an elongated post-game visit with their opponent.
The Pelicans likely would have been celebrating a third trip to Phoenix in less than two weeks for a Game 7 on Saturday night if Paul hadn’t had a performance for the ages.
The score was tied at 95 with a little more than seven minutes remaining when he took over.
Paul broke the tie with a jumper.
Paul put the Suns on top 99-98 with another basket.
Paul gave them a 101-100 lead with another basket.
Paul fed Deandre Ayton for a basket that gave the Suns a 103-102 lead.
Brandon Ingram’s jumper gave the Pelicans their last lead of the game at 104-103 with two minutes left.
But Paul set up Devon Booker, who started in his first action since injuring a hamstring in the third quarter of Game 2, hit a 3-pointer for a 106-104 lead with 1:42 left.
The Pelicans kept scrapping to the end, which was one of their trademarks under first-year coach Willie Green, but Paul added two free throws and one more basket to help seal the victory.
Ayton added 22 points, Mikal Bridges, who scored 31 in Phoenix’s pivotal victory in Game 5 Tuesday, had 18 and Cameron Johnson added 13.
Ingram had 21 points and 11 assists, Herbert Jones Jr. and CJ McCollum scored 16 each, Larry Nance Jr. added 15, Trey Murphy III had 12, Jose Alvarado 11 and Jonas Valanciunas 10 for the Pelicans.
The Pelicans’ three rookies – Jones, Murphy and Alvarado – had their best collective effort of the series, once again showing poise that defies their lack of experience.
Unfortunately for the hometown team, Paul, who is 36 years old and 11 years removed from a stellar six-year career in the Crescent City, played with energy, efficiency and explosiveness that defies his age.
Green talked before the game about the importance of the Pelicans getting off to a better start than they have in the series, but that didn’t happen.
When Booker made his first shot he gave the Suns all 11-4 lead.
The Pelicans made a concerted effort to get Jaxson Hayes involved early and it paid off with six quick points, but he also got two quick fouls.
Green tweeked his substitution pattern, bypassing Devonte’ Graham in favor of Alvarado when it was time to give Jones his first rest.
Alvarado needed less than a minute to excite crowd, causing Cameron Payne to fall to the floor with a crossover dribble and scoring on a floater from the lane that gave the Pelicans a 23-22 lead.
The chippiness that has been a feature of the series returned when McCollum committed a Flagrant 1 foul against Johnson. The Suns made four free throws on the possession for a 26-25 lead.
Murphy completed the first-quarter scoring with a 3-pointer that tied the score at 28 even though Ayton had 10 points on 4 for 4 shooting.
Valanciunas went to the bench after committing his third foul with 11:32 left in the second quarter, but the Pelicans weren’t fazed.
Nance had three baskets and Jones four points as the Pelicans took a 41-38 lead.
Ayton’s jumper pulled the Suns with a point, but that was his only points of the quarter.
Ingram scored seven points during an 11-0 run that gave the Pelicans a 52-40 lead.
Bridges stopped the run with a layup and the Suns crept within eight points before Nance beat the buzzer with a tip-in that gave New Orleans a 58-48 halftime lead.
But Paul had 13 points and three assists as Phoenix outscored New Orleans 34-27 in the third quarter, the first time in the series that the Pelicans did not have an advantage in the third quarter.
Still the Pelicans held an 85-82 lead at the end of the period, but they couldn’t slow down Paul just as they couldn’t in dominant performances he had in the final period of Games 1 and 3.
Former Pelican Josh Hart was in attendance and tweeted that he had never see the building this electric.
Former Saints coach Sean Payton was also on hand, no doubt appreciating the competitive and selfless traits that these Pelicans share with his best teams.
And the way the team with the 10th-best record in the Western Conference battled for six games against the one with the best record in the NBA demonstrated that the future for New Orleans’ team is the brightest it has been since Paul took them to the Western Conference semifinals 14 years ago.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…