EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns unable to complete frenetic comeback, split with Lakers at home

May 25, 2021, 11:57 PM | Updated: May 26, 2021, 11:47 am
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts a three-point shot over Cameron Johnson #23 of ...
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts a three-point shot over Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on May 25, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The “what if?” is easy to see in the Phoenix Suns’ series with the Los Angeles Lakers after Chris Paul’s shoulder injury in Game 1.

But the reality for the Suns is they’ve got to move past it, because the Lakers we’ve seen in the first two games are a very beatable team, even with an injured Paul for Phoenix.

With that in mind, though, if the Suns don’t advance, Tuesday’s 109-102 loss in Game 2 will be their other “what if?” that put the series tied 1-1.

The Suns battled like they haven’t all season to have a chance to win it, and that’s saying something if you’ve seen the fights Phoenix has put up this year.

At the 9:35 mark of the third quarter, the Lakers led by 15, benefitting from sloppy Suns play, a rebounding edge and a laboring Paul unable to stabilize his team like he normally would.

“We had our chances, but the first quarter hurt us. The turnovers in the first quarter,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

The Lakers scored 21 points off the Suns’ 13 turnovers and were plus-8 in rebounds after being outrebounded by 14 on Sunday.

It was a bizarre first 2.25 quarters in terms of game flow, with both teams struggling to shoot, but it was evident the Lakers were the team in control and could put the game away.

Any extra separation, however, would not come. And instead, a Suns comeback would.

The lead was still at 10 midway through the third quarter before the Suns’ Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson combined for 11 of the Suns’ 13 points in the last 4:08 of the period to have Phoenix within seven.

The crowd saw the energy from its team and responded emphatically to each positive play for the Suns from then on.

Payne kept it going. He hit another 3 in the fourth, assisted a four-point play for Jae Crowder and then drilled one more deep ball to improbably tie the game at 86 with 7:04 remaining.

“That’s what he does,” Williams said of Payne. “He got to the basket, made plays. He certainly can step outside and he’s not afraid to take shots, especially 3s.”

That was the break when Paul would exit the game and not return, ending his night at 23 minutes and a stat line of six points, three rebounds and five assists.

Paul was still heavily bothered by the shoulder injury sustained in Game 1, and it had him hesitating with the ball, something he never does.

Through the Lakers forcing him to do more, Paul scratched and clawed his way to still making a relatively decent impact, but with Payne having it going, Williams elected to pull Paul there.

“Just looking at him holding his arm the way he was holding it, I just couldn’t watch him run like that,” Williams said, noting a difference in how Paul looked compared to shootaround. “He was trying to make plays, he battled, he’s a warrior. We all know that and I just made a decision to take him out.”

Somehow, the Suns continued to surge forward, Three minutes later, a Payne layup and forced shot clock violation had the Suns up 1 and Williams calling a timeout with 3:40 left.

At this point, the question was if this was a must-win game. Because despite what was expected of the Lakers’ stars and fine-looking box scores, both Anthony Davis and LeBron James did not play well again.

James took only three of his 16 shots inside 18 feet, relying on jumpers and still not looking to score at the rim even close to the level we normally see.

Davis shot 2-of-9 outside 11 feet and a generous whistle got him to an 18-for-21 mark at the foul line to reach 34 points.

But that point is also where the Lakers really locked in for the first time all series, and as is the benefit of experience in those moments, it was enough to win this game.

First, the Lakers turned up the defense.

Then James drained an unguardable jumper.

Booker missed a pull-up and then one of two Davis jumpers to fall was the biggest shot of the game to put the Lakers back up six with 2:15 to go.

Payne turned the ball over next trip down, fouled Davis on the turnover, Davis made both free throws and then it was another tremendous Lakers defensive possession to force another turnover.

A Lakers miss and two Booker free throws preceded James getting his dagger 3.

Booker had 31 points, shooting a perfect 17-of-17 from the foul line. He was not able to perfectly dissect Los Angeles like he was in Sunday’s win, with some Lakers tweaks closing lanes that were open before leading to only three assists and four turnovers. Playoff basketball is hard.

The lane that was still open was to Deandre Ayton, who had his second straight strong outing. He finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds in a team-high 42 minutes.

Payne scored 19 points and dished out seven assists off the bench.

Andre Drummond had a great night for the Lakers. His play has been uneven this season and he was picked on defensively in Game 1, but Drummond helped the Lakers take the glass back with 15 points and 12 rebounds, five of which were offensive.

Dennis Schroder was the best guard on the floor. He scored 24 points while James added 23 points, four rebounds, nine assists and two steals.

In a way, Games 1 and 2 were similar for the Suns. They sent a message in Game 1 they would not be outworked. In that game, they were the team up by 15 in the third quarter and there was no inspired push from the Lakers like the Suns had for them in Game 2.

But the beauty in this Lakers team is that with its stars and experience, they can still get outworked and win, especially if Paul remains limited. In Los Angeles, the Suns will have to find their level of execution from Sunday again or else they will get dealt a similar fate as Tuesday.

“We just have to move on to the next game,” Booker said. “It’s a tough one tonight, we fought all the way through. Just came up short at the end.”

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