NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans started its season 3-16. Now, the pesky Pelicans are proving to be a handful for the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference playoffs.
Brandon Ingram scored 16 of his 30 points in the third quarter and the Pelicans beat the Suns — playing without injured star Devin Booker — 118-103 in Game 4 on Sunday night to tie the first-round series. Game 5 will be Tuesday night in Phoenix.
“Brandon is playing some of his best basketball of the season, and he’s doing it on the biggest stage, and it’s great to see,” said New Orleans coach Willie Green, a rookie head coach who kept his young team together in the midst of its early season struggles and now has forced a best-of-three playoff match with the top-seeded Suns. “I’m just trying to move out of the way and let him do his thing about him.”
Ingram says it feels like it is the Pelicans’ time.
“We’ve worked so hard throughout the year to become a better team,” Ingram said. “My teammates put me in the right spots and are making me look good.”
Jonas Valanciunas reasserted himself in the middle with 26 points and 15 rebounds, and rookie guard Herb Jones, a defensive specialist, played smothering defense against Chris Paul.
Paul, who had 19-point fourth quarters in the Suns’ two playoff wins, was held to four points in 35 minutes. He had 11 assists, but committed three turnovers.
It was a physical game. The Pelicans converted 32 of 42 free throws while the Suns went to the line only 15 times and made 10.
“It was like the old NBA,” said Paul, who was picked up in the back court by Jones for nearly the entire game. “I told the refs, ‘Are we playing old NBA of new NBA?’ I was fortunate enough to play in both. Regardless, whatever it is, you’ve to adjust early in the game and figure it out.”
Jones said he simply tried to be more aggressive against Paul and not give him room to maneuver.
“We were trying to be more disruptive and more physical,” Jones said. “I feel like that’s been a huge part of our game, especially in the playoffs. You’ve got to play with a little more fire.”
Suns coach Monty Williams did not want to take away from the Pelicans’ effort, but he was upset by the disparity in foul shots.
“Forty-two to 15 in free throws — slice it any way you like to, in a playoff game that’s physical, that’s amazing,” Williams said. “Coaches shouldn’t have to come up to the microphone and feel like they’re going to get their head cut off for speaking the truth. It’s not like we didn’t attack the basket. That’s really hard to do. They outplayed us and they deserved to win, but that’s a free throw disparity.”
The Suns played their second straight game without Booker, their leading scorer, who strained his right hamstring after scoring 31 first-half points in the Suns’ Game 2 loss. He is out indefinitely.
“We can’t worry about that,” Williams said. “The guys who are on the floor just did it (win) the other day when we played hard and didn’t shoot the 3-ball well but still won the game. (The Pelicans) played much harder.”
Deandre Ayton led the Suns with 23 points and eight rebounds, and fellow center JaVale McGee had 14 points.
The Pelicans led 89-85 with 8:05 left and used a 12-0 run to ice it. Valanciunas, limited to six points in a Game 3 loss, scored 10 points in a 3:34 span of the fourth quarter to help the Pelicans pull away. He punctuated his scoring spree with a 3-pointer from the left wing.
“We showed aggressiveness and we were physical out there,” Valanciunas said. “(The Suns are) a physical team and their defense is good, and matching their physicality is the key.”
New Orleans had a 35-23 advantage in the third quarter. Ingram was the catalyst, making 7 of 10 shots and assisting on two other baskets as New Orleans took an 84-74 lead. His flurry started on the Pelicans’ first three possessions of the half, with a pair of 15-footers and a layup.
The Suns used a 20-10 run, with Mikal Bridges breaking down the New Orleans defense with three layups in the final eight minutes of the first half, to take a 51-49 halftime lead.