It was a philosophical change for the Phoenix Suns more than a plug-and-play replacement of Devin Booker, who was out with a hamstring injury for Game 3 of the first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Cam Johnson replaced Booker in the starting lineup, while Landry Shamet slid into Johnson’s spot to begin the second half. Yet it was Suns center Deandre Ayton and his backup, JaVale McGee, who made their presence felt most in a 114-111 win at the Smoothie King Center.
Phoenix now leads 2-1 in the series.
Ayton poured in 28 points for a playoff career-high, surpassing his 24-point performance in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals outing against the Los Angeles Clippers last season. The big man added 17 rebounds and three steals.
McGee added 15 points off the bench.
“I kicked myself the other day when I looked at the stat sheet and I felt it in Game 2 that he didn’t get enough opportunities,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Ayton’s six shot attempts in a Game 2 loss on Tuesday. “Tonight we tried to look at him on the post a little bit and then I think Chris did a great job of trying to get him the ball in short roll (situations).”
Ayton had the first 25-point, 15-rebound performance in the playoffs for a Phoenix squad since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
By the end of the third quarter, Phoenix had 54 points in the paint, more than they had in either of the first two games.
The Suns finished the game outscoring the Pelicans 64-to-38 in the paint.
On the negative end of things, Phoenix went 4-of-26 from three-point range.
Aside from Ayton and McGee, no other Suns player hit double-figures until Chris Paul’s free throw gave him 10 points and broke an 83-all tie with 9:57 left in the game. That was the beginning of a takeover for the Phoenix point guard.
Paul entered the fourth with nine points but finished with 28 points and 14 assists, including a two-minute stretch starting at the 6:01 mark of the fourth that saw him score eight straight points for Phoenix.
Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 34 points, while teammate C.J. McCollum added 30.