PHOENIX (AP)Mikal Bridges was playing his 47th minute of basketball on Tuesday night when he leaped into the air, threw down a huge two-handed jam and pulled himself up on the rim with a little sneer for good measure.
He’s the do-everything man for these Phoenix Suns. And, no, he’s not even close to tired.
Bridges scored 31 points and blocked four shots in arguably the best game of this pro career, leading the Suns over the New Orleans Pelicans 112-97 to take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference first-round series.
”I’m ready to play tomorrow,” Bridges said with a big grin at the postgame news conference. ”I’m energized, my teammates keep me going. I’m itching my knee right now, talking about it. I’m ready, I love being out there with my teammates. They’re my best friends, it makes it way easier.”
Chris Paul added 22 points and 11 assists, bouncing back from a subpar performance in Game 4. Deandre Ayton added 19 points and nine rebounds.
The Suns never trailed but also never totally pulled away until the final few minutes against the feisty Pelicans. Once again, Phoenix found a way to close, improving to 50-0 this season when leading after three quarters, including 3-0 in this series.
Bridges closed the Suns’ scoring with two emphatic dunks in the final minute.
Brandon Ingram scored 22 points and CJ McCollum added 21 for New Orleans, which was hurt by a slow start and 15 turnovers.
”I just thought that we made some timely mistakes, starting with the turnovers,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. ”Fifteen turnovers for 23 points, that fuels their team and that fuels their transition opportunities. That is an area where we know we have to be better.”
The Suns took an 89-78 lead into the final quarter after Cameron Payne’s late 3-pointer. The Pelicans – just 36-46 during the regular season – pulled within seven points with less than two minutes left, but Cameron Johnson threw down a one-handed jam on the ensuing fast break to keep the Suns in control.
Phoenix will try to clinch the series in Game 6 on Thursday in New Orleans. If the first five games are any indication, it will not be easy.
It was an ironman performance for Bridges, who played 47 of a possible 48 minutes yet never looked tired. He made 12 of 17 shots from the field, blocked four shots, grabbed five rebounds and had two steals.
The lanky 25-year-old – who was one of three finalists for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award – has never missed a game in his four-year NBA career, playing in 309 regular-season games and 27 more in the postseason.
”He doesn’t miss games, he guards the best players every night and then he has 31,” Paul said.
Phoenix played its third straight game without All-Star guard Devin Booker, who was still out with a strained right hamstring that happened in Game 2.
Phoenix led by as many as 17 during the second quarter before settling for a 59-46 advantage. Paul had 16 points before the break while Ayton added 13. Ingram had 13 for the Pelicans.
”We have to change the way we start a game and come out with energy,” Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas said. ”If we didn’t have that struggle in the first half, it would have been a different game.
Paul was irritated postgame about a technical foul he received in the fourth quarter. It came at a crucial juncture: The Suns were leading just 100-92 with 4:39 left.
The point guard got the technical after being whistled for an eight-second violation. Paul claimed that all he said was ”C’mon” at the scorer’s table because he was hoping for a review.
”It’s out of control, that’s ridiculous,” Paul said. ”It is what it is. We try not to get fourth-quarter techs on our team. That’s a big deal.”
Speaking of displeasure with officials, Suns coach Monty Williams was fined $15,000 for publicly criticizing the officiating in Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans, the NBA announced before the game. The Pelicans had a 42-15 advantage in foul shots during Game 4, which the Suns lost.
Pelicans: Jose Alvarado was once again tough on defense, forcing the eight-second call in the fourth quarter against Paul, which resulted in a turnover and technical foul on Paul. … New Orleans shot just 5 of 25 (20%) from 3-point range.
Suns: Booker has been working out at the team’s practice facility, but it’s still unclear when he’ll be able to return. … Payne gave the Suns a boost with seven points in the first quarter. He averaged just 4.8 points through the first four games of the series. … Phoenix was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range before closing the first half by hitting 4 of 6.
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