EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Message sent: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton shine as Suns down Lakers
May 23, 2021, 6:18 PM | Updated: 9:41 pm
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — In a matchup of the second and seventh seeds in the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers both looked the parts of that number next to them on a bracket in Game 1, a 99-90 Suns win.
That is not what many people expected.
In Sunday’s roller coaster that included a Chris Paul injury and a Cam Payne ejection, it was the inexperienced Suns who continued to show poise and hold off the Lakers from ever getting more than a finger of control on the game.
Suns head coach Monty Williams had his team prepared for those types of situations that can happen in the postseason.
“There is going to be a moment in the game where you have to regulate your emotions,” he would tell his team.
Williams said that defense and rebounding translate to the playoffs, two areas that are more about effort than anything else and were substantial wins for the Suns.
Suns guard Devin Booker didn’t want to say that Sunday was a statement win for Phoenix, but it sure felt like one that the Suns were not going to be outworked.
The Suns were the aggressors who landed the first couple of punches. Phoenix scored 16 fastbreak points in the first half, a total at halftime the Suns only reached once all season.
Make or miss, they were flying. And the Lakers were not ready for it.
It was an erratic start for both teams in an electric atmosphere. The Suns’ energy was a few notches higher all game and that made the segments where the Lakers weren’t disjointed notable.
All the momentum was on the Suns’ side until an awkward play when there was 9:19 left in the second quarter and the Suns up nine. It left Paul on the ground in serious pain with his right shoulder. Paul is not one to show he is in discomfort, but he spent a few minutes collecting himself, surrounded by the entire Suns bench and most of the Lakers.
He got up with a towel over his head and went to the locker room, as all fans began to realize this was the start of their nightmare, all while the Lakers went on a 6-0 run after Paul’s exit with a right shoulder contusion.
But who else would it be to compose the team than Booker, who scored two buckets over two minutes that Los Angeles failed to capitalize on. Deandre Ayton had a tip-in as well, and after that brought on a Lakers timeout, the crowd roared like it hadn’t in over a decade when Paul miraculously emerged back on the bench before checking back in.
That pocket of space for the 24-year-old Booker and the 22-year-old Ayton to step up in their first-ever playoff games was a nice summation of what they did all night.
One of the biggest challenges for the Suns in this series was to not allow the Lakers to have the two best players on the floor. That comes with the territory of playing against a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on it. If they are, you’re screwed.
The Suns needed to have the first- or second-best player on the court for some nights of this series, but it was hard to imagine a game where they would have both.
Booker scored a franchise-record 34 points in his postseason debut, adding seven rebounds and eight assists on 13-of-26 shooting in 45 minutes.
When Paul returned, he clearly was heavily affected by the injury. He lost his handle a few times with his right hand, couldn’t get any oomph on his passes and looked like he was using a catapult-like motion for his jumper instead of his usual smooth stroke.
All that brought on Booker running most of the show, what, as he has said before, he has been waiting on. His advancements throughout the years of breaking down defenses to stop him, both with passing and scoring, were put on display through an outstanding performance.
“Book was just, he was, he was great tonight,” Paul said. “It was crazy, it was a lot of those situations where like, ‘I have the ball’ or ‘I want the ball to orchestrate it.’ Just to see him manage the game. I was just out there kind of mad at myself that I couldn’t help him more.
“Everybody has been waiting to see him in a playoff game and you got to see it.”
Ayton nearly grabbed half of the Lakers’ rebound total as a team (33). He had 16, eight of them on the offensive glass, to go along with 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting.
“That’s next-level. You could see it in his face pregame that he was ready to go,” Booker said of Ayton. “As a collective whole, us being on him a lot during the game, getting him prepared for this moment and he responded to it and he stepped up so that’s big-time.”
Those two were a consistent storm crashing into any semblance of a Lakers comeback.
The Suns were up eight at the half before quickly finding themselves ahead by 15 with six minutes left in the third quarter. Booker had 17 points in the second half, including a timely trio of trips to the foul line in the last 95 seconds of the third quarter,
Ayton had 10 rebounds, including the two biggest of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
With the Lakers only down eight at the 5:02 mark and making up a bit of ground after Payne’s ejection a few minutes prior, Ayton tipped in a Mikal Bridges miss. The next time down, he snagged a Booker misfire from deep that turned into a Bridges conversion from the midrange.
A minute later, the Suns were up 12, putting a desperation in the Lakers they didn’t respond all that well to. They seemed ready to move on and it allowed the home crowd to celebrate early.
Paul finished with seven points and eight assists. He said after the game he will “absolutely” be ready for Tuesday’s Game 2 but also that he heard a “crack” when he fell, so we’ll see.
Davis was 5-of-16 and a game-low minus-18. He took full blame for the Lakers’ loss afterward.
His 13 points tied the least amount he’s ever registered in a playoff game, and a lot of it was with Ayton on him, who was a game-high plus-16.
“I thought DA did a really good job of just trying to stay in front of him,” Williams said of Ayton on Davis. “He’s an All-World player so DA is gonna have to be even better in Game 2. We know what we’re gonna face when we play these guys again.”
James looked like himself mobility-wise, moving better than he did Wednesday on his sprained right ankle, but he obviously wasn’t able to impose his will on the game through downhill drives as he normally would. The safe bet is he’s still playing through some issues.
He contributed 18 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and three steals. It was only the sixth playoff game in James’ last 67 that he failed to reach 20 points in.
That makes Game 2 all the more fascinating. The Lakers will look to hit the Suns back. Hard. They want to reassert dominance.
But after what the Suns went through to win on Sunday, they more than proved they’ll be ready for it. And to swing back.
“I’ve been watching the playoffs for a very long time and a student of it and dissecting it so just understanding that it’s the next-play mentality,” Booker said. “There’s gonna be some play-through calls, there’s gonna be a high-intensity game. Like tonight, there’s gonna be something that goes on, but keep the tunnel vision. That’s what it was tonight.”
When Booker was asked about the poise Williams said his team had all week coming into the game, he reiterated this wasn’t just a thing this past week.
“It’s been a whole year of it. It’s been a summer of it, preseason, offseason,” Booker said. “These are the moments that we’ve been waiting on. Coach Monty always preaches when preparation meets opportunity, and it’s that time right now.”