Pelicans facing a third must-win situation this month in Game 6 vs. Suns

The fate of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2021-22 season will be at stake Thursday when they host the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. The NBA playoffs are brand-new territory for two-thirds of the Pelicans’ roster this spring, but the win-or-go-home scenario of Game 6 certainly is not. In fact, it’s the third time New Orleans has needed a victory to avoid elimination in the month of April alone.

New Orleans will try to improve to 3-0 over a two-week span in must-win games Thursday (6:30 p.m., Bally Sports, TNT, 100.3 FM), after surviving the play-in tournament as a No. 9 seed by beating San Antonio and the LA Clippers. Phoenix moved to within a win of reaching the Western Conference semifinals in Game 5 on Tuesday, taking a 3-2 series lead with a 112-97 triumph over New Orleans in Footprint Center.

In all three losses to the Suns, the eighth-seeded Pelicans have trailed by double digits at halftime, by 19, 11 and 13 points. New Orleans sliced the latter deficit to seven in the fourth quarter of Game 5, but could not overcome another sluggish first half in Arizona. The Suns have led at intermission in every game of the series, but the margins in Phoenix’s Game 2 and 4 defeats were just five and two points, respectively.

“We’ve got to change how we start the game,” said Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas, who notched 17 points and 14 rebounds in Game 5. “If we want to fight and be a good team, which we are, we need that fight from the start, from the first minute, which we missed today.”

“We can’t dig ourselves a hole against a really good team,” said head coach Willie Green, a Phoenix assistant coach the previous two seasons, including for the 2021 West champions.

New Orleans chipped away at its second-half deficit in Game 5 but could not generate the consistent offense it needed to further concern a raucous crowd at Footprint Center. Rookie point guard Jose Alvarado was the subject of constant boos from Suns fans, but then gave them reason to be a little nervous in the fourth quarter when he spearheaded a rally highlighted by his seven points and a series of defensive plays, including forcing an eight-second violation against Phoenix future Hall of Famer Chris Paul.

“Jose’s incredible,” Green said. “He’s a fantastic defensive player. He’s a fantastic player just in general. He just climbs into guys and makes it tough on them. He’s doing a pretty decent job on Chris. He’s guarding him fullcourt, gotten a couple eight-second violations, a couple steals coming up behind him. He’s doing an incredible job. Unfortunately, we fell short tonight.”

New Orleans still had a chance to threaten Phoenix despite shooting 40 percent from the field and committing 15 turnovers, leading to 23 Suns points. The Pelicans had a poor three-point night at just 5/25, but as guard CJ McCollum noted after the loss, a team’s shooting can fluctuate during the playoffs.

“We’ve got to get stops. We’ve got to take care of the ball,” McCollum said. “Those are things you can control.”

In addition to its pair of pressure-filled play-in victories, New Orleans secured several vital late-season wins to ensure a spot in the postseason. The Pelicans will need to deliver in a big spot again Thursday to earn a final opportunity Saturday to score an upset over a Suns team that went 64-18 this season, the league’s best record.

“We’ve just got to do it for 48 (minutes),” Valanciunas said of Game 6. “It’s not going to be perfect, but we’ve got to (play well for) more than two quarters.

“It ain’t going to be easy. (The Suns are) a good team. They’re going to play hard. They’re a tough, physical team. But if you play with the same toughness or even more, we can win the game.”

“Give them credit – they did what they needed to do on their home floor,” Green said of the Suns maintaining the edge in the series. “We’re headed back to New Orleans. Be ready to play.”