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Aggressive Pelicans take it to Suns, win 118-103 to tie series 2-2

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 24: Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives against Cameron Payne #15 and Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of Game Four of the Western Conference First Round at the Smoothie King Center on April 24, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

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Phoenix did not have Devin Booker to fall back on.

However, that was not the Suns’ biggest problem in Game 4 — the Pelicans played harder and were more aggressive. Herbert Jones was blocking 3-point attempts. Jose Alvarado entered the game and forced Chris Paul into an eight-second violation.

A Pelicans team that just more than two months ago, during the All-Star break, was answering questions about Zion Williamson as a teammate has quietly gotten healthy, traded for a locker room leader in CJ McCollum, and on Sunday night outplayed the 64-win defending Western Conference champions.

New Orleans got 30 points from Brandon Ingram and 26 from Jonas Valenciunas, pulling away from the Suns for a 118-103 win that evens the first-round series 2-2. Game 5 is back in Phoenix on Tuesday.

As a team, the Suns shot 5-of-24 from 3, and in the two games in New Orleans they were 9-of-50 from beyond the arc. That is one place they miss Booker. Chris Paul was held to four points on 2-of-8 shooting on Sunday. Deandre Ayton led the Suns with 23 points while his backup at center JaVale McGee had 14 points.

After the game, Suns’ coach Monty Williams and several of the Suns were fixated on the free throw disparity: 42-15 in favor of the Pelicans.

However, the Suns were not a team that got to the free throw line a lot during the regular season; this is a team that loves to shoot from the midrange, not drive into contact. The Pelicans, on the other hand, hunt contact. Using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, for the season the Pelicans were third in the league in free throw rate, and the Suns were 25th (put more traditionally, the Pels shot 3.3 free throws a game on average). Filter those stats for after the All-Star break, and the Pelicans stay in the top 10 (eighth) but the Suns fall to dead last in the league. Given that the Pelicans were the aggressors on a night, the difference doesn’t point to some grand conspiracy. It points to one team simply playing harder.

With Booker out, the Suns will need more effort, more from Paul, and more from other role players as well, and more consistent defense. The Pelicans are growing with confidence every game, and they are not going away quietly. The Suns are going to have to earn winning this series — and play more aggressively.