NEW ORLEANS — For three quarters on Friday night, things were going the New Orleans Pelicans’ way against the Phoenix Suns.
The Pelicans carried an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, and their offense was humming to the tune of 102 points in the first 36 minutes. But games are 48 minutes long. And the final 12 were certainly ones the Pelicans would like to soon forget.
The lead evaporated in four minutes. Then not even four minutes later, the Suns were up double digits. When the final horn sounded, the Suns joyously walked off the court with a 132-114 win, while the Pelicans headed to their locker room in a daze, trying to figure out what just transpired.
According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, the 18-point defeat was the largest in the NBA in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55) for a team that entered the fourth quarter up double digits.
So what happened?
“I saw Chris Paul take control of the basketball game,” Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said.
Paul finished with 15 points, 19 assists and was plus-28 in the fourth quarter — and he didn’t even play 10 minutes. The veteran point guard helped the Suns seize control and never looked back.
“Man is orchestrating out there. He knows what’s going on on the floor before it even happens,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “With him, the game is never out of reach. The game is never over until the horn sounds. He did a good job of leading us, keeping our composure throughout the whole game.
“In that fourth quarter, it’s a work of art. The way he was picking apart their defense and making plays for others and at the same time scoring when he had to.”
Paul was seemingly three steps ahead of everything the Pelicans wanted to do in the fourth quarter. His falling 3-pointer over Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball with 4:41 left felt like the dagger to put New Orleans away. He ran back up the court with his teammates chasing him, as Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy called a timeout to try to salvage something in the final minutes.
However, contrary to what social media suggested in the moment, Paul didn’t scream “I own this place.”
“I said I know this place, I know this place,” said Paul, who played in New Orleans for the first six seasons of his career. “I know it. I do. I spent some of the best years of my life was playing here in New Orleans.”
While the Suns were figuring out a way to come out with the victory, the Pelicans were left trying to figure out how they let the game slip away.
“Just being in the game, I think us not getting stops kind of demoralized on the offensive end,” Ball said. “Seeing them hit 3s back to back to back, we weren’t getting any ball movement or good shots over the course of the fourth quarter. It just got worse and worse.”
Aside from the barrage of 3-pointers Phoenix was sending New Orleans’ way, the Pelicans got sloppy with the basketball as well. After committing just seven turnovers in the first three quarters, the Pelicans coughed it up six times in the first six minutes, leading to 12 Phoenix points.
It’s a problem that has plagued New Orleans this season. With Friday’s loss, New Orleans falls to 12-9 this season in games in which they’ve had a double-digit lead. That’s the most losses after leading by double digits in the NBA this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“The thing is when chaos is going on, we gotta figure out how to settle down,” Ingram said. “We have to be able to adjust during the game.
“Whatever defensive scheme, whatever we wanna do on the offensive end to make our team the best team, that’s what we need to do. After these losses, it’s frustrating. We don’t have much to say. The coaches don’t have much to say. You just look at the film and try to be better tomorrow.”
Van Gundy said he doesn’t think his team’s issue is age.
“A lot of teams in this league have quarters like that,” Van Gundy said. “I’ll never throw the young card out there. We’re a basketball team with really talented people, and we didn’t get the job done in the fourth quarter.”
He did call it a “disastrous quarter,” though. And it was. The minus-29 point differential was the largest for the Pelicans in any quarter in franchise history.
“They were hitting us with haymakers at the end, then it just snowballed,” Van Gundy added.
Pelicans forward Zion Williamson said there’s only one way to handle a loss like this.
“Really, the thing for us is learn from it,” the 20-year-old said. “Honestly, I think that’s the best thing we can do. Learn from it.”