Bordow: Mikal Bridges, Suns Find Themselves in Decisive Game 5 Win Over Pelicans

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The first hint of what was about to happen came just before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams was nearing the end of his pre-game press conference when he was asked about the mood of the team since its Game 4 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

“There’s been a sore loser remorse in the locker room that we’ve carried for two days,” Williams said. “The mood has been chippy, intense, motivated. Whatever you want to call it.”

Anger can turn a team sideways. It can result in silly fouls, poor shots and undisciplined play. But when channeled properly, when that edge leads to execution and, let’s be honest, a few shots fall this happens:

Phoenix 112, New Orleans 97.

Order restored.

Yes, the Suns have to travel to the Big Easy for Game 6, and as we’ve seen, the Pelicans won’t go down easy. There’s too much fight and talent on Willie Green’s team. But doesn’t it feel like Phoenix has taken New Orleans’ best shot and will close the series out Thursday, even if Devin Booker is still dressed in street clothes?

Doesn’t it seem like the Suns the 64-win Suns have found themselves again?

“I thought for the most part we maintained the level of intensity tonight, and our game plan discipline was about as good as we’ve seen in the playoffs,” Williams said. 

Or, as Chris Paul put it, “We just knew we needed to take it home.”

Williams made some subtle moves with his rotation in Game 5. When the Pelicans went with their two-big lineup of Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr., late in the first quarter, Williams countered by playing Deandre Ayton and Javale McGee together. He also started the second quarter with Bismack Biyombo on the floor, Aaron Holiday got some minutes in a two-point guard lineup, and Torrey Craig was a DNP after playing 10 minutes in Game 4.

But this wasn’t a game about adjustments. It was about attitude.

The Suns relentlessly attacked the rim, finishing with 46 points in the paint, got into passing lanes 10 steals and at least a half-dozen deflections held Brandon Ingram to 22 points after three straight games in which he scored more than 30, and were the aggressor from the outset, something that wasn’t the case in New Orleans.

Even Booker, still out with a hamstring strain, got into it. When Ayton was called for an offensive foul with 7:51 left in the first half, Booker walked past halfcourt to berate an official. He was right, too. The Suns challenged the call and Ayton went to the free-throw line.

If one play summed up the night, it was Mikal Bridges going around and over Ingram for a baseline dunk midway through the third quarter. Bridges flexed, the crowd roared, and all was right in Phoenix’s world again.

“You realized in this series the winner is usually the one playing harder than the other team,” Bridges said.  

Tuesday, that team was Phoenix.

Before we go any further, can we acknowledge just how ridiculously good Bridges is? He played 47 of 48 minutes thanks in part to Jae Crowder being in foul trouble scored a team-high 31 points on 12 of 17 shooting, was 4 for 4 from 3-point range and had five rebounds, two steals and four blocked shots.

And after all that, he sprinted down the floor for an exclamation point dunk with less than a minute left. 

“You can’t clone him. You wish you could,” Williams said. “He’s just one of those rare basketball players that can play that way on defense but also give you the point production he gave us tonight.”

Said Ayton: “He’s an ironman, to be honest.”

The most encouraging part of the win, if you’re a Suns fan? The return of Cameron Payne. 

You remember Payne, the left-handed point guard who averaged 9.3 points, 3.2 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 22 games in the playoffs last season and seemed to give Phoenix a lift whenever he stepped on the floor.

Well, in this series’ first four games Payne was 0 for 12 from 3-point range and looked like a guy who had lost both his shot and his confidence.

But Payne had 12 points Tuesday and the most important bucket of the game. New Orleans had cut Phoenix’s 18-point lead to 86-78 with less than a minute left in the third quarter when Payne buried a step-back three to extend the lead to 11.

If Payne can continue to play like that, like he did last season, he gives the bench scoring a boost but more importantly takes some pressure off Paul by giving Phoenix another ball-handler to handle the Pelicans’ pressure. 

“He gave us a jolt when he came in,” Williams said. “I loved his aggression. I don’t want him thinking out there. I want him to play the way he’s capable … I think he brought his normal juice. That’s the guy we love to see, attacking the paint, knocking down threes, playing his herky-jerky style.”

New Orleans’ stubborn refusal to go away it cut Phoenix’s lead to seven points late in the fourth quarter- shows just how tough a task it will be for the Suns to close the series out on the road. It’s unlikely the Pelicans will go 5 for 25 from 3-point range again, with Ingram and C.J. McCollum a combined 2 of 13. Plus, New Orleans continues to outrebound the Suns and get to the free throw line more often.

But the Suns are the better team, and they rediscovered their identity Tuesday.

Phoenix by six.

And in six.

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