Suns-Pelicans Game 6: Keys to winning the game

As we wait (im)patiently for Game 6 between the Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans, let’s discuss what to watch as the game unfolds.

If the series continues the way it’s gone, you can expect the Pelicans to have a bounce-back game and make all the right moves to give them every chance to win the game.

The Phoenix Suns will need to play their best basketball of the series to win Game 6 on the road.

Here’s what I’m watching, from both sides.


Booker: In or out?

The big storyline is Devin Booker’s hamstring. He is still listed as OUT for this game, but injury reports are updated hourly and can change up to half an hour before game time (which would be 4:00pm AZ time). Watch twitter for breaking news, and we’ll share it here as well.

Several reports have Booker feeling good and his chances of playing tonight are dependent on how he responds in pre-game warmups. If the hammy tightens again, he will have to remain out. But if he feels good, he’s back in the lineup.

Of course, the whole tenor of Game 6 changes if Book plays. Dude had 31 in the first HALF of Game 2 before pulling up lame and has scored 59 in six quarters overall.

A Book game doesn’t necessarily mean a Suns win. The Pels had the lead in Game 2 when Book got hurt. But the Suns chances of winning Game 6 shoot up considerably higher than they already are (2.5 point favorite by betting sites) if he steps on the court.


Trapping/face-guarding Chris Paul

Without Booker to carry some ball-handling load against tough defense, the Suns have had to pray for Chris Paul to turn back the clock. Every other game he’s been great, but in the even-numbered games, Paul has looked exhausted.

In Games 2, 4 and 5, Paul has looked exhausted by the 4th quarter. The full-court pesky, physical defense of Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado has something to do with it. I’m sure Paul is praying for Devin Booker’s hamstring to heal up soon.

  • 26.6 points, 12.7 assists, 57% shooting: Paul’s numbers in Games 1, 3 & 5
  • 10.5 points, 12.5 assists, 29% shooting: Paul’s numbers in Game 2 & 4

Game 6 is an even-numbered game.


Who Steps UP?

The winner of each game has seen out-sized performances from guys not named Chris Paul and Brandon Ingram.

In Game 1 (Suns win 114-99), he was Devin Booker with 25 points and 8 assists. In Game 2 (Pelicans win, 125-114), CJ McCollum stepped up with a near triple-double 25 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds. Game 3 (Suns win 114-111), Deandre Ayton had 28 points and 17 rebounds. Game 4 (Pelicans win 118-103), Jonas Valanciunas had 26 points and 15 rebounds. In Game 5 (Suns win 112-97), Mikal Bridges tossed up a career playoff high 31 points and 4 blocks.

Candidates for step-up games…

  • Deandre Ayton 30+ points and/or 20+ rebounds

Ayton leads the Suns in scoring at 20.2 per game (tied with Chris Paul) and in rebounding at 10.4 in this round. He will almost certainly post something similar in Game 6. So an outsized performance for Ayton would have to exceed his playoff career high of 28 points and/or his series-high of 17 rebounds.

If Booker does not play, the Suns will need as many points as possible—or at least him making the most of every shot attempt. But regardless of whether Book plays or not, the Suns need to grab every possible rebound — they average -11 per game as a team — and Ayton is a guy who can work even harder to close that gap with the Pelicans. In Ayton’s playoff career (27 games), he has posted six games of 17+ rebounds and one game of 20+ rebounds.

  • The Cams and Holiday go for 30+ points

Cameron Johnson has been averaging 10.6 points while Cameron Payne is at only 6.2 points per game — that’s a combined 7 points per game below their season averages. They just aren’t shooting well. Johnson is the Suns three-point shooting leader this year (42.5%) and Payne was their best a year ago (44%), yet they are a combined 10-for-40 in this series (25%). If Payne is awful again, we might see more Aaron Holiday in his place. If the Suns get 30+ points from the combo of Payne/Johnson/Holiday, that improves the Suns chances greatly.

  • CJ McCollum with 50/50 splits for 30+ points.

One of the reasons the Suns have a 3-2 series lead despite losing Devin Booker since early in Game 2 is that Mikal Bridges has locked up CJ McCollum in this series, leaving Brandon Ingram and a cast of randos to pick up the slack.

McCollum is averaging an objectively impressive 23.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists as the Pels primary ball-handler and second-best shot maker, but his shooting percentages are way down to 38/34 splits (field goal % / three-point %) compared to 49/39 since joining the Pels mid-season and career averages of 45/40 over eight seasons.

If McCollum rebounds with a big shooting game, a big IF with Bridges as his primary defender, the Pels will have a much bigger chance of winning the game.


Win the big-shot battle

All that aside — big games, little games, games-within-a-game — winning in the playoffs comes down to who makes the biggest shots at pivotal times. Those shots present themselves at any point in a game, not just the last five minutes. They can start the game right, keep a lead, cut a deficit, incite the crazy crowd or quiet down the crazy crowd at any point in a tough matchup.

Even if one of these teams leads Game 6 by 15+ all second half, those big shots happened. They just would have happened in the first half.

Looking at the box scores of the five games, there are no team-wide GOTCHA patterns developing in wins vs. losses. The Suns have been

  • walloped in second-chance points in wins (Game 1 and Game 5)
  • shot well from three in a loss (Game 2)
  • shot awful from three in a win (Game 3)
  • committed more personal fouls and still won (Game 1 and Game 5)
  • got out-rebounded EVERY time and still won (Game 1, 3 and 5)
  • lost the third quarter EVERY time and still won (Game 1, 3 and 5).

So what gives? What’s the magic formula in this series, then?

Big-time shot making.

In game 2, the Pelicans were great as a team. They shot crazy-good from three (57%) AND got more second-chance points (15 to 9) AND more fast break points (16 to 9). But the Suns still could have won that game except that, whenever they needed it, Brandon Ingram and the other Pelicans made every important shot while the Suns just didn’t. This was McCollum’s best quarter of the series.

Game 4’s win was totally different. They shot poorly from three (25%), had equal second-chance points (20 to 20), fewer fast-break points (6 to 8) and ‘only’ out-rebounded the Suns by 9, but got a crazy amount more free throws (42 to 15). Once again, the Suns could have won that game but the Pels made every big shot and the Suns did not.

In Suns wins, they got the big shots to fall while the Pels missed. Chris Paul had a pair of 19-point fourths, and a big first half in Game 5 while Mikal Bridges had 13 in the fourth quarter.

So that’s the key, and the odds favor the Suns.

The Suns have a much longer track record of making big shots at the right time, as evidenced by their league-leading win total over the last 24 months, league-best record in the clutch and league-best record in road games. The Suns already won Game 3 in NOLA, despite not having Book out there.

The Pelicans will be energized by their crazy home crowd and they’ve got the best version of Brandon Ingram the NBA has ever seen in terms of his shot-making against tight defense.

That’s what this game will come down to.

Now, we wait. At least, it’s only a few more hours.

Tip-off is 4:30 Arizona time.

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