DAN BICKLEY

Suns arrive at a dangerous point in the series after Game 3 loss to Lakers

May 27, 2021, 10:43 PM | Updated: 11:50 pm

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, scores past Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder, righ...

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, scores past Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder, right, during the second 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)

The Suns needed good shooters on Thursday. They blanked.

They needed Devin Booker to compensate for the injured Chris Paul. He clanked.

The frightening thing about the Lakers’ 109-95 victory on Thursday wasn’t the final score. It was how Paul performed better than most people hoped; how Deandre Ayton sustained his postseason excellence; and it still wasn’t enough.

Not even close.

Gulp.

The Suns are being bullied to the precipice of extinction because their fatal weakness (size) is being exposed by their lack of postseason marksmanship. Because Paul’s health is compromised just as LeBron James seems to be getting better. Because general manager James Jones long ago committed to the idea that Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Jalen Smith were enough frontcourt depth to win an NBA championship.

Wrong.

On many nights during the regular season, the logic seemed unassailable. But now, Jae Crowder is flinging bricks and won’t stop shooting. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have shriveled considerably in the postseason. Saric didn’t get off the bench in Game 3. And the backup point guard, Cam Payne, too frequently ranks among his team’s best performers in the postseason.

Bottom line:

Without Paul as a lethal facilitator and reliable offensive weapon, the Suns are on borrowed time. Especially when Booker is incapable of carrying the Suns all by himself, against a lengthy team of excellent defenders.

Obviously, the Suns have arrived at a dangerous point in the series. They need to find solutions and a winning formula entering Game 4 on Sunday. It’s been a while since we’ve felt this kind of desperation mixed with futility.

The Suns went 8-0 in the Orlando bubble in 2020. They won 51 of 72 games in 2021. They entered this series with remarkable bravado. But Paul’s injury and his subsequent ineffectiveness have siphoned belief, internally and externally. It’s a testament to how important Paul has been to the Suns in 2021. Unfortunately, it’s also happening just as James is regaining his footing and his place on the throne.

The Lakers’ star seemed to turn a corner in Game 3, driving to the basket with malice and attacking smaller defenders. His explosiveness and hunger seemed to fuel title hopes Los Angeles, changing the feel of the entire series.

This is not Paul’s fault. His ability to perform at a high level in early moments on Thursday was a testament to his toughness. But he’s far from well and far from good, and the Suns have to make some hard decisions about playing time entering Game 4.

This cruel twist is par for the course in Phoenix, where bad luck is always our safest bet. Even worse, the Lakers seem far too comfortable at the moment. After the game, Anthony Davis was emboldened enough to accuse the Suns of dirty tactics, after he nearly de-jeweled Crowder in Game 3.

The Suns are resilient. It’s one of their best traits. They have been great at mitigating losing streaks in 2021. And now comes their biggest test of the season, their last real chance to beat L.A. and save us from the two worst words in professional sports:

What if?

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