The sound of more than 18,000 gleefully-singing fans reverberated off the Smoothie King Center walls on Sunday night.
It was complemented by tenacious, expletive-laced chants directed at Phoenix forward Jae Crowder.
Before and after, there was noise.
Noise. Noise. Noise. Noise. Noise.
The beehive atmosphere not only helped rattle the visiting Suns — evidenced by the usually unflappable Chris Paul’s flagrant and technical fouls accompanying his meager four-point output — it lifted the New Orleans Pelicans to a stirring 118-103 Game 4 win, sending the series back to Phoenix tied 2-2.
“I love New Orleans,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “I love the people here. That was amazing. The Jose (Alvarado) chant, it was all kind of stuff going on. I couldn’t hear everything that was being said. I know they are rooting for us. They are behind us.”
Whether it was the pernicious clamor, Alvarado’s peskiness or Herb Jones’ pugnaciousness, the Pelicans exposed a crack in the Suns’ foreboding facade.
The league’s most prolific winner has been battered by the long-shot Pelicans in two different second halves. And it’s revealed the wide disparity in regular-season records isn’t reflective of the gap between the two teams.
But for the Pelicans to win the series, they must find a way to re-create that interruptive atmosphere away from their hostile home crowd, by taking at least one game in Phoenix.
They’ve done it before, pouring in a season-best 17 3-pointers in Game 2 at the Footprint Center. The physical fashion in which New Orleans won Game 4 feels a lot more replicable, though.
But can it travel?
Because now the question has shifted from competitiveness to contention.
On Sunday, the Pelicans showed this series is no longer just about gaining respect and avoiding a (gentlemen’s) sweep. That objective, seen as the lone priority after successfully navigating the play-in tournament, has already been met.
So, for what feels like the 100th time this season, these Pelicans have defied expectations and ratcheted up the stakes by doing so.
This team firmly believes they can beat the mighty 64-win Suns two more times and pull off one of the more stunning upsets in NBA history. After Sunday night’s performance, their fans believe it too.
But winning in Phoenix will require disrupting Paul, and repeatedly attacking them on the offensive end again. By trapping Paul on every touch in the fourth quarter, and eschewing the 3 to drive hard into the paint while crashing the offensive glass, the Pelicans stymied the Suns.
“We wanted to bring the fight to them,” Alvarado said. “That was just the main thing we had to focus on. They are a really good team. Just be physical.”
Nothing revealed the Suns’ frustrations more than coach Monty Williams using the postgame press conference to lament New Orleans attempting 27 more free throws than his team.
That’s usually not what a No. 1 seed is worried about four games into the first round. Williams sounds flustered, and after dominating Games 1 and 3, Paul looked downright frazzled on Sunday, forced to defer throughout the fourth quarter.
“They were the aggressor tonight,” Paul admitted after Game 4. “They came out and made all of the big plays.”
With All-Star Devin Booker sidelined and Paul just two weeks away from his 37th birthday, there’s tension creeping into this formidable Suns team. Whether through force or noise, the Pelicans found a way to get under their skin, making the Suns look uncharacteristically uncomfortable.
But don’t expect the reigning Western Conference champions to go away with a whimper, especially on their home court, where the Suns have won 66 times in their last 88 games, including the playoffs.
As these series go, teams adjust. At some point Phoenix will likely shoot better than the 20.8% converted from the 3-point line over the last two games (11-of-53).
And regardless of the outside ephemera, the Pelicans showed their best chance to bounce these Suns is by goading them off their game through aggression. When songs are shouted and chants are raining down from the rafters, it’s easier to get swept up in the atmosphere, which the Pelicans took full advantage of.
But, if they want to complete the job, it’s going to take creating that kind of feistiness internally, and taking it to a very different environment. If they can do it, though, the Pelicans have shown they could be well on a path towards a historic upset.
“We’ve done what we should’ve done,” CJ McCollum said. “I would’ve liked to win Game 3 at the house. We got down by 20 in Game 1. We executed better in Game 2. We know Game 5 is going to be a dogfight.
“We have to be ready to play. This is a championship-caliber team who has been there before.”