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Of all the shocking trends we’ve seen so far in the first round of the playoffs (and there have been more than a few) the New Orleans Pelicans splitting the first four games with the Phoenix Suns has to be at the top of the list.
The Suns were the best team in the league during the regular season, by a fairly wide margin. The Pelicans finished ninth in the Western Conference standings and needed to beat the Spurs and the Clippers in the NBA Play-In Tournament just to earn this first-round matchup with the Suns.
There are myriad factors at play in the Suns underperforming and the Pelicans overperforming expectations and the impact of Devin Booker’s injury has been enormous. (The Suns are plus-1 in the 65 minutes he’s played in the series, minus-13 in the 127 minutes he’s been out). But after that, the shot-making of Brandon Ingram may be the most significant variable in the series.
Brandon Ingram has been making every tough shot
Through four games, Ingram is averaging 29.8 points (along with 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists) while shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from beyond the arc. That’s the kind of efficiency we’d expect from a special jumpshooter getting a lot of open looks but Ingram has done it on a steady diet of heavily contested shots.
So far this series, Ingram has attempted 59 shots at least 10 feet from the basket and 40 of them have come with a defender within at least four feet (classified as tightly defended by NBA.com). He’s posted an effective field goal percentage of 53.8 percent on those tightly defended jumpers, a better mark than elite shooters like Kevin Durant (50.2), Steph Curry (53.7) and Chris Paul (45.6) managed during the regular season.
Ingram’s shotmaking has been incredible but a defensive change on the part of the Suns may be slightly lowering the level of difficulty for him. During the regular season, the Suns used Mikal Bridges as the primary defender on Ingram, for a total of 52.1 possessions, compared to 29.1 for Cam Johnson and just 7.3 for Jae Crowder. In this postseason matchup, Bridges has spent three times as many possessions on CJ McCollum as he has on Ingram, leaving the defensive responsibility primarily to Crowder. Bridges is an elite defender but this cross-match doesn’t work the other way around as Crowder doesn’t have the footspeed to keep up with McCollum full time, running off screens and curls. But Crowder is a solid wing defender, the problem is size — Crowder is 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. Bridges is listed at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-1 wingpsan. Ingram is listed at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, two inches taller than Crowder with an extra six inches of wingspan.
To be clear, some of the shots Ingram is hitting are absurd and he’s also punishing the Suns with mid-range daggers when he gets a retreating big man switched onto him. And he’s hit some ridiculous shots over Bridges too. But when he rises off the dribble, Crowder hasn’t been able to bother his shots in the same way.
Across the first four games of this series, Ingram has scored 31 points, shooting 7-of-15 from inside the arc and 5-of-9 from beyond it on possessions where Crowder was his primary defender (although to be fair this includes some possessions where he’s shooting over Deandre Ayton or a different defender after a switch).
In a vacuum, Ingram is taking the kind of shots the Suns’ defense would like to see — half his shots have been pull-up jumpers at least 10 feet from the basket, half have been tightly defended. But Ingram has just been able to use his height and length to rise over the defenders and keep draining them. According to InPredictable’s model, Trae Young is the only player who has generated more postseason Win Probability Added for his team with his shooting alone, and by this model, he’s been the second most impactful player in the entire playoffs.
The Suns could try more of Cam Johnson or Torrey Craig on Ingram but he’s mostly taken advantage of them both in the same ways in the first four games (totaling 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting on possessions with Craig or Johnson as his primary defender). They could try moving Bridges off McCollum but that puts a lot of defensive pressure on Chris Paul and Cam Payne at a time when they need both players to be a lot more productive offensively. They could also try bringing Ayton and JaVale McGee out higher on pick-and-rolls to keep Ingram out of the middle of the floor but that exposes their backline to other modes of attack.
In the end, simply waiting Ingram out, sticking with their scheme and hoping some regression to the mean levels out his effectiveness over the rest of the series may be the best choice. But funny things can happen in the small sample size of a single playoff series and without Booker, their margin for error is a lot smaller.
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We’ll be back tomorrow with more of our attempt to categorize all 30 NBA teams by their offensive style this season. But for now, check out part 1 (Timberwolves, Hornets, Warriors, Pacers, Pistons, Thunder) and part 2 (Lakers, Rockets, Spurs, Jazz, Cavs, Knicks, Blazers).
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