EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns spiral in Game 3 as LeBron James’ return to form leads Lakers

May 28, 2021, 1:03 AM | Updated: 1:17 am
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) argues with a referee after fouling Los Angeles Lakers forward ...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) argues with a referee after fouling Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the first half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Were the Los Angeles Lakers a slumbering beast the past few weeks, or were they no longer the ferocious defending champs?

In Game 3, we learned the answer to that. And we learned that the Suns’ resistance to that awoken monster was some of the worst basketball they’ve played in months.

It all went wrong for them, all while we saw that LeBron James for the first time in the series during a 109-95 Suns loss that now has Phoenix trailing in the series 2-1.

The Suns’ offense had some real purpose and flow to it early on, the primary source of a one-point lead, 28-27, through the first quarter.

After the Suns were unable to get their usual amount of three-point looks in the first two games, head coach Monty Williams made an adjustment, trying to create more through off-ball motion for Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges. That even included some ball screen actions for Cam Johnson, who took two jumpers off the dribble after attempting only 20 pull-ups all season.

Through that, though, the shots weren’t falling enough and Williams thought that frustrated his team a bit.

“From the eye test — I haven’t seen the film yet — but it looks like we’re getting relatively good shots, open shots,” Williams said.

That did not include Devin Booker, who Williams described as getting shots that were “under duress.”

Booker was 6-of-19 in the game and never got going during any stretch of the game. For a player like Booker who is always in rhythm and playing at his own tempo, it’s always surprising to see him never find it once.

The Lakers’ defense deserves a fair bit of the credit but the Suns couldn’t get anything to go down in the first three quarters. On top of that, Chris Paul’s injured right shoulder continued to negatively impact his play.

Los Angeles tweaked its scheme on him, giving Paul more room than usual to shoot, and at some points, helping completely off the Point God.

Crowder was one of those Suns players who couldn’t connect. He was 1-for-7 from three-point range and is now 2-of-20 in the series. Bridges hit two 3s in the first quarter but did not score the rest of the game.

Despite a 12-point second quarter for the Suns, the Lakers were held to 16 due to a tremendous defensive effort by Phoenix. That had the Suns’ halftime deficit at just three points, a throwback 43-40 scoreline.

Out of halftime, however, James got downhill driving the basketball in a way we hadn’t seen yet in the series due to his bothersome right ankle. He accounted for eight points and three assists in the first seven minutes of the third quarter, and suddenly, the Lakers were up 14.

James was making a show out of it for his own bench as well.

That intent that James has played with for so many years was back, and as Charles Barkley would say for Phoenix as a whole after Game 2, the Suns were in trouble. Because not only was James showing off the size advantage for the Lakers in a way we hadn’t seen yet, but his teammates were too. The Lakers were plus-16 on the glass and had 15 offensive rebounds.

“The last five minutes of the third and most of the third, we didn’t come out with the energy we needed to in the third … We got smashed on the boards tonight … If you look at the shooting percentages, neither team shot the lights out of the ball but [they had] 58 points in the paint,” Williams said.

James was one of the Lakers consistently getting to the paint, as Williams mentioned it seemed like he was in there the whole third quarter. The Suns’ on-ball defense was lacking and there was a failed synchronization most of the night marking ball screens.

“There was a segment in the second half where it was just paint drive after paint drive,” Williams said, noting a lack of resistance in the paint.

Booker made a good point that the Suns always play better offensively when the defense is picking up stops, which it especially did not in that third quarter.

Again, because of a limited Paul, there was no stabilizing force for the Suns. It’s gotta be Booker, but he wasn’t seeing the floor right most of the night. He didn’t have his mojo and was uncharacteristically even playing out of control with the ball at times. The Lakers threw new defensive wrinkles at him for the third consecutive game, and this time, they rattled the cage enough to cause him serious problems.

“Well, they’ve been the number one defense in the league all year long,” Williams said on Booker’s struggles. “So when you have two 30-point games and play the way he’s played, they’re gonna try to do some things to take him out. He missed some shots tonight but they were trying to speed him up and they ran two guys at him all night long.

“That’s a tough way to play. Even when we weren’t in pick-and-roll, there was always someone there at the rim or in the paint to cut him off, and if we’re not making shots around him, then it just makes it tougher on him. He’ll bounce back.”

Booker had 19 points, six assists and four turnovers.

The Lakers led by 17 with under a minute to go in the third quarter, a point where the game felt over given the Suns’ 35 points across the 24 minutes of the middle quarters.

As expected, however, the Suns did put up a fight. They got it down to an eight-point game with under two minutes to go but it was too little too late.

Phoenix, unfortunately for itself, couldn’t end the game on a high note and it was an emphatic showing when it comes to losing composure.

Already with five fouls, Booker fouled a driving Dennis Schroder with 35 seconds left. It followed Booker’s fourth turnover of the night and Booker did not make a play on the ball with his push.

While he had already fouled out, Booker was awarded a Flagrant 2 to eject him anyway.

Crowder was in the mix on that play too, and while he didn’t get any punishment like Booker for the incident, an exchange of words with Schroder after the ejection brought on the officials quickly throwing out Crowder as well.

And if there wasn’t enough meat in that sandwich yet, Paul after the game multiple times alluded to his history with referee Scott Foster, who officiated his 11th straight playoff loss for Paul.

“If I was a betting man, 11 games in a row,” Paul said. “11 games in a row.”

The only bright spot in the game for Phoenix was Deandre Ayton. He had 22 points and 11 rebounds, continuing to do everything the Suns need out of him offensively as a finisher.

Anthony Davis’ issues with his jumper didn’t stop in this game, with him 1-of-7 outside the key, but he thrived inside of it for a 10-of-15 mark to help him get to a game-high 34 points. All 10 field goals came off either an offensive rebound, which he had six of, or were assisted. That has to be a concern for the Suns.

James’ 21 points, six rebounds, nine assists and seven turnovers on 9-of-19 shooting do not properly represent what his teammate Jared Dudley tweeted right after the game.

Paul had seven points, five rebounds and six assists in 27 minutes. He was 3-of-8 from the field, did not attempt a three-pointer and watched Cam Payne close the game in his place for the second straight night. He did not provide any details on what was bothering him in his shoulder when asked postgame.

The Suns ended Game 2 of the series the right way after showing the resiliency Williams has continued to bring up throughout the season as the signature trait of his team.

Game 3, however, is where his group’s inexperience showed. The Suns spiraled when that James showed up, and when they needed their experienced leader to carry them more than any other point this season, he was not physically capable of doing so. They did not have a Plan B in place if Paul was limited again, either, or did a bad job of executing it.

The team’s season has been defined by bouncing back, and if there was ever going to be a time for the Suns to prove it is indeed a part of the culture and that it is what they are about, it’ll be Sunday in Game 4.

What Williams had to say about the way Thursday went down said a lot about what the mindset will be for that game.

“Talked about it all season long. The way we play, some of the press that we’ve gotten, when we play well, teams are going to try to get under our skin and we have to be able to weather that,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re a punk or a doormat, but we have to consistently try to stay in the game, stay with our gameplan. And it’s tough at times.

“When you feel like you’re being fouled or somebody’s doing something that you don’t think is right, but we’ve shown that when we can stay steady with our poise and emotions, we can weather that. Tonight I didn’t think we did it that well.”

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