DAN BICKLEY

Phoenix Suns took back control in Game 4 win over Lakers

May 30, 2021, 4:08 PM | Updated: 6:36 pm
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton dunks during the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton dunks during the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Basketball comes at you fast, especially in the playoffs. And for all the pathos in the Valley, for all the drama and damage and obsessing over officials:

The Suns are back even. Even better, they’re back in control.

Our basketball team gathered themselves in the second quarter of Sunday’s 100-92 victory, just as the season was starting to circle the drain. Staring down an 11-point deficit that felt like a precipice, they finally found themselves.

“The playoffs bring you to your limits in a lot of ways,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And that’s how you grow. You’re watching our young team grow on the fly.”

The Suns leveled this series by goosing tempo, pushing pace, punishing a Lakers team that had grown arrogant and strangely casual. Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges started making shots. Chris Paul was no longer a liability. And in proof of how fast fortunes can change in the postseason, the fragile Anthony Davis took a spill and was forced from the game with a groin injury.

The day also started with a defining moment. Williams told Paul of his intentions to sit the point guard in Game 4. Predictably, Paul protested. He showed his coach the range of movement he had regained in his right arm. He asked Williams for his trust.

Williams then met with Suns general manager James Jones for 20 minutes. That conversation was bigger than just Sunday’s game. Paul had asked Williams for his trust. If Williams and the Suns declined, it might have long-term complications, maybe even souring Paul on a long-term future in Arizona.

Bottom line: Just as the Suns were ready to move on without Paul, he returned nearly as good as ever. It turned out to be a game and a story for the scrapbook, one of the shining moments in Suns playoff history.

“Everything has been a little off-kilter here because of our point guard, honestly,” Crowder said. “It’s not an excuse. It’s us having to adjust on the fly.”

With the victory, the Suns regained home-court advantage. They might have the health advantage in Game 5. The entire postseason took a hard left on Sunday. And now, everything feels all right in Phoenix.

The series also turned because Deandre Ayton has been rock solid and fully engaged. He’s been willing and able to defend without fouling while digesting a huge platter of playing time. Ayton once played in awe of his fellow NBA centers. Now he’s running them over.

Numbers have always been deceiving with Ayton. They’ve always come too easy for Ayton. But these are too good to ignore.

Ayton has played 158 of 192 possible minutes in his first playoff series and made 38-of-47 field goal attempts. He’s averaging nearly 40 minutes a game and making 80% of his shots. Those are Wilt Chamberlain numbers.

Remember how he once lost his crunch-time minutes to Dario Saric? Now, Ayton is dominating with barely any help from his backup centers. Remember how shaky and unreliable his hands occasionally appeared in the regular season? On Sunday, he caught a fastball from short range in the lane. He is locked in at an unprecedented level.

In the 2021 postseason, Ayton’s soaring status is the big reveal in Arizona, even more than the expected ascent from Devin Booker. Over the weekend, he even joked that game film has become his favorite television program.

“The other side of it is DA had 17 rebounds,” Williams said. “That was a relentless attitude. We lost that (rebounding) battle by one. But for him to have 17 boards in a game like this was huge for us.”

The Suns deserve much credit for not letting go of the rope, for not losing their competitive edge after a pair of rough losses, after enduring an injury to their leader that effectively broke their offense.

The Suns protested hard on Sunday. Not with their words. Not with anger toward officials. With their performance.

“Hats off to the officiating,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said during a late, in-game interview.

The Lakers head coach complaining about NBA officials?

That’s more than laughable. It is proof the Lakers are actually concerned about the Suns.

After Game 4, they should be.

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