NEW ORLEANS – Devin Booker started and closed, but Chris Paul put on a show that will be long remembered in the city that care forgot.
Booker started and played for the first time since a hamstring injury in the third quarter of Game 2. And he hit a critical 3-pointer to put Phoenix ahead to stay at 106-104 with 1:42 left of a 115-109 victory in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,710 at the Smoothie King Center on Thursday night.
The top-seeded Suns won the best-of-seven, opening round series of the NBA Playoffs, 4-2, to advance to meet Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. Dallas won its series also 4-2 with a 98-96 win Thursday night. The No. 8 seed Pelicans saw their season end after reaching the playoffs as the only losing team at 36-46 after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in a play-in game.
Paul continued to haunt his original NBA team that drafted him in 2005 with a game-high 33 points, but he saved his best Marie Laveau curse for last. The 12-time All-Star hit an uncanny 14 of 14 from the field, 4 of 4 from the line and 1 of 1 from 3-point range with eight assists and five rebounds. The perfect 14 set the NBA Playoff record for most field goals without a miss.
“I’ll never have one of those games,” said Booker, who missed his first five shots from 3-point range and had just two points at the half.
Perhaps because of Paul’s spell and Booker’s slow start, the Pelicans forgot to care about Booker before the dagger 3-pointer. Brandon Ingram had just put New Orleans up 104-103 with two minutes left in what was the 21st lead change of the game, and the Pelicans left Booker wide open.
“He was on that left wing,” Paul said. “And I don’t know if they forgot or didn’t realize who he was, but I looked over and saw how they were shifted.”
Booker nailed it for the 106-104 lead and added two free throws with 19.2 seconds left for a 114-109 lead to finish with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting with five rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes.
“That was probably the biggest shot of the game,” Paul said of Booker’s 3-pointer.
“It caught me off guard, too,” Booker said of how open he was. “You don’t really get clean looks like that. He threw it. I shot it.”
Booker finished as he finished his previous game – hitting a 3-pointer. Booker scored 31 points with seven from 3-point range in the first half of Game 2 before straining his right hamstring in the third quarter of a loss in Phoenix and missed the next three games. As of Thursday morning, he was listed as out for this game. Booker started slow and had just two points on 1-of-4 shooting in the first half.
“Really just making sure my body was ready,” Booker said. “I was confident in it. I tested it. Got some good work Wednesday. I knew the adrenaline was going to kick in, and it was time to go.”
Phoenix coach Monty Williams announced shortly before the game that Booker would start.
“Just progression,” he said. “That’s all. Nothing jaw dropping at all. He’s just gotten more conditioning done on the floor. That’s it.”
Paul’s shooting dropped everyone’s collective jaw.
“I’d say nobody’s seen that,” Booker said. “Fourteen of fourteen.”
Just two games ago in New Orleans, Paul hit a playoff career low four points in a loss on 2-of-8 shooting as the Pelicans evened the series at 2-2.
“I had no clue,” Paul said when asked if he knew he had not missed a shot as the game went on. “But at halftime, I said, ‘I need to sot shoot more.'”
The Suns trailed 58-48 at the half.
“Yeah, we needed it,” Paul said. “I had to force the issue.”
Booker’s mere presence when he wasn’t scoring helped Paul, who at times looked exhausted throughout the series without Booker.
“It was real nice to have him back,” Paul said. “All the pressure they had been doing all series, especially in the last three games, it was a little bit different when you got him out there on the court.”
Deandre Ayton scored 22 points with seven rebounds for Phoenix. Malik Bridges added 18 points, including a dunk for a 108-104 lead with 1:28 to go just after Booker’s three-pointer. Ingram led the Pelicans with 21 points and 11 assists.
The Suns quickly erased the Pelicans’ 58-48 lead at the half in the third quarter. Phoenix took its first lead since the second quarter on a Paul jumper with 6:09 left in the third period for a 70-69 advantage.
New Orleans regained the lead and was up 85-82 entering the fourth quarter.
Booker’s only basket of the first half was a jumper from 16 feet to put the Suns up, 11-4, with 9:03 to play in the first quarter. The Pelicans recovered and took an 18-17 lead with 4:36 to go in the first quarter. The opening period ended tied at 28-28.
New Orleans outscored Phoenix 9-0 from the 4:18 mark of the second quarter to 3:16 remained to take its biggest lead of the game at 50-40 and stretched that to 54-42.
Phoenix, which finished the regular season 64-18, overwhelmed New Orleans as the game and the series wore on. The Suns outscored the Pelicans 33-24 in the fourth quarter and by 67-51 in the second half.
“It was evident that it was going to be a game of wills,” Williams said. “And we just had a little more in the fourth.”
Particularly Booker’s will to play and finish and Paul’s to never miss.
“Chris did something historical,” Williams said.