The Western Conference’s top-seeded Phoenix Suns and eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. New Orleans beat the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament.
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How they got here
Phoenix Suns (64-18)
The Suns responded to last season's Finals loss with a vengeance, laying waste to the league. They lost three of their first four games, won 18 straight and never looked back in one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history. There was no midseason lull, no locker-room drama, no need for a trade-deadline shake-up. They clinched the No. 1 overall seed in late March and still did not rest until the final week of the season.
Phoenix is a perfectly balanced roster. Chris Paul and Devin Booker form the league's best backcourt, capable of creating for themselves, each other and their teammates. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson are three of the best role-playing wings in the NBA. Deandre Ayton quietly holds down the middle, and the addition of veteran center JaVale McGee shored up last season's hole behind him.
Even a midseason hamstring injury to Booker and a late-season thumb injury for Paul could not derail the Suns, because Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet performed admirably in their absences. If losing a 2-0 lead in the Finals did not rattle their confidence, it is hard to imagine what will. No team is more complete.
New Orleans Pelicans (36-46)
The Pelicans started 1-12. They did not get a single minute this season from Zion Williamson, their most promising player. They were still 14 games below .500 at the end of January, 12th place in the West. They easily could have folded on a fourth straight lottery season, but they never stopped fighting for first-year coach Willie Green, and the front office rewarded them with a trade for CJ McCollum at the deadline.
McCollum and Brandon Ingram have formed a potent offensive duo, averaging 47 points and 11.4 assists between them. The rookie class of Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado showed considerable promise — particularly Jones, who played at an All-Defensive level from the outset. Jonas Valanciunas is a workhorse, and Jaxson Hayes took a step forward, giving Green the luxury of leveraging his roster's size.
Since McCollum made his debut for New Orleans on Feb. 10, the Pelicans have produced the league's 10th-best net rating — even with the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks on both sides of the ball. It still translated to .500 basketball, but the playmaking combination of McCollum and Ingram is a threat in the playoffs. They combined for 108 points on better than 50% shooting in their two play-in tournament games.
Meanwhile, Williamson's status remains as uncertain as ever, but the Pelicans are still fighting.
Head to head
The Suns won their regular season series with the Pelicans, 3-1.
It is difficult to extract much useful information from the four games. Ingram missed their first and last meetings, and the Pelicans did not feature McCollum until their third showdown, which New Orleans won convincingly, 117-102. That said, the Suns were missing Ayton for their first two games against the Pelicans and Paul for the second two. And they still won three of the four games by a combined 41 points.
The Suns generally close games with their starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Crowder and Ayton, who are +7.4 points per 100 possessions in 754 minutes together this season. Do not sleep on Johnson as a replacement for Crowder, since that lineup has outscored opponents by 32 points in 40 minutes together.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have run with the starting lineup of McCollum, Jones, Ingram, Hayes and Valanciunas in the clutch. They are +8.2 points per 100 possessions in a smaller 142-minutes sample size. Alvarado has played his way into some late-game situations, but he and McCollum present real defensive obstacles.
Matchup to watch
The Pelicans have Jones to chase Booker, and the Suns have Bridges to guard Ingram, which leaves McCollum and Paul to hunt matchups and create for their teammates. The former has been one of the most underrated scorers in the league for years, and Paul has long been the best table-setter in the game.
We know what Paul can do as a primary option. We have not seen McCollum in that role on this stage.
This is McCollum's moment to prove his value outside of Damian Lillard's shadow on the Portland Trail Blazers, and he will have to do so against an elite defense with no real weak links. Phoenix will not give him a break on the other end, either. There is no hiding against the Suns. How well McCollum holds up in isolation against their star guards on both sides of the ball will determine whether this series is competitive.
Phoenix Suns (-1000)
New Orleans Pelicans (+650)
Suns in four.
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