Pelicans’ sweep of Suns changes how they should be evaluated

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Suns at Pelicans
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

NEW ORLEANS – It was the closest thing to NBA playoff basketball that can happen in December.

The New Orleans Pelicans and the Phoenix Suns in effect resumed their hard-fought playoff series from last spring when they played Friday and Sunday in the Smoothie King Center.

Of course nothing that happened was going to change the fact that the top-seeded Suns held off the eighth-seeded, upstart Pelicans in six games more than seven months ago.

But these games would provide an update on how the two teams compare now that Zion Williamson has returned from injury to bolster the young Pelicans lineup.

The weekend set became more interesting when the Pelicans overtook the Suns for the top spot in the Western Conference on Wednesday night.

In a span of less than 48 hours the Pelicans prevailed twice over the Suns amid playoff intensity, winning 128-117 on Friday in a game that ended with key players from both teams jawing at one another, then prevailing in overtime Sunday, 129-124.

The Smoothie King Center was really loud and essentially full both days, partly as a cathartic reaction to the Saints’ struggles but mostly as a tribute to a really talented, exciting and very good basketball team.

The surging Pelicans extended their winning streak to seven games as they won for the 11th time in 13 games while extending the Suns’ losing streak to four games as Phoenix slipped behind Memphis into third place in the West.

It would be fair to say that these two games probably meant a bit more to the home team, which is trying to establish legitimacy as a championship contender, than they did to the visitors, who are 17 months removed from playing for an NBA championship and are widely accepted as an ongoing title contender.

But the Suns were far from unmotivated, especially after Williamson’s Slam Dunk Contest audition with 1.9 seconds left in the already-decided victory Friday.

A few Suns players confronted the Pelicans after the final buzzer and words were exchanged, but nothing else was.

Moments later Suns forward Torrey Craig said, “If we weren’t motivated, I think we definitely are now.”

Sunday’s game didn’t feature anything quite as heated as the end of Friday’s game did, but it was played with a degree of intensity more closely associated with April than December.

And the unusual dynamic of back-to-back, head-to-head match-ups added to the playoff feel. Suns coach Monty Williams adjusted to the Friday loss the way you would expect him to adjust between games in a playoff series.

On Friday the Suns leaned on the 3-pointer, making 22 of 44, and Willie Green’s Pelicans leaned on their inside strength, scoring a season-high 72 points in the paint while Phoenix scored just 38.

On Sunday, the Pelicans nearly duplicated their points in the paint total, finishing with 70 – but the Suns increased their total in the 64 and they held a 21-9 edge in second-chance points.

Green understandably took more of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach. Williamson scored a season-high 35 points Friday night and he scored a season-high 35 on Sunday. He made 13-of-17 shots on Friday and made 14-of-21 on Sunday, throwing in two 3-pointers in three attempts in Game 2 for good measure.

CJ McCollum demonstrated that the shooting touch that he regained Friday – at least on 2-pointers – wasn’t a one-night deal.

On Friday, he made six of 10 2-pointers (though just one of six 3-pointers) while scoring 18 points. On Sunday, he made 10 of 14 3-pointers (though just three of 10 on 3-pointers) while scoring 29 points.

And Green continued to lean on his role players and his depth, which is as good as there is in the NBA. Even though sparkplug Jose Alvarado wasn’t much of a factor off the bench, Larry Nance Jr., Naji Marshall and rookie Dyson Daniels all were significant contributors.

The Suns played Sunday without leading scorer Devin Booker because of “hamstring soreness” that contributed (along with Daniels’ defense) to his five-for-17 shooting on Friday.

But it’s worth remembering that the Pelicans’ second-leading scorer (Brandon Ingram) has missed each game in their winning streak because of a toe injury and fellow starter Herbert Jones Jr. has missed the last five because of an ankle injury.

And now the Pelicans hit the road for three games – another two-games-in-the-same-city deal with the Jazz on Tuesday and Thursday before finishing the season series with the Suns on Saturday.

The Pelicans are 18-8 and they have 56 more games to play.

It’s a long, long way to real playoff games in the spring.

It’s easy to view these games against the Suns as an intensification of a burgeoning rivalry and speculate about another possible playoff series between the two teams.

But evaluating the Pelicans only in relation to the Suns is unfair.

They must be evaluated on the terms they have created – as the best team in the Western Conference.

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Les East

CCS/SDS/Field Level Media

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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…

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