DAN BICKLEY

Suns 1 win away from sweetest reward Valley fans could ever imagine

Jun 1, 2021, 10:36 PM | Updated: 11:58 pm
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns puts up a shot over Andre Drummond #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns puts up a shot over Andre Drummond #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half in Game Five of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 01, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Pivotal postseason games are full of tension and anxiety. In Arizona, they are often accompanied by injustice and heartbreak.

Not on Tuesday.

The Suns made a bold declaration in their dominant Game 5 win against the Lakers. They defied LeBron James and his broad shoulders. They rode the lightning of Devin Booker and the growing legend of Cam Payne. They did more than embarrass and expose the defending NBA champions.

They led by 30 points at halftime. They looked wired while the Lakers looked tired. The other side of hard is just one victory away.

“We’re all locked in right now,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “If you’re not, you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.”

This kind of high-stakes blowout rarely happens in the Valley. Kurt Warner pitched the NFL equivalent of a perfect game in a playoff win against the Packers. On the brink of elimination, the Diamondbacks caught Andy Pettitte tipping his pitches, turning a dicey World Series game into a massacre.

If not for another injury scare to Chris Paul, this playoff victory would’ve been just as one-sided and equally satisfying, commemorating a Suns team that showed up for a fistfight and walked into a house party.

The bad news: Paul was floored by moderate, unexpected contact midway through the third period, re-aggravating his shoulder injury and succumbing to new waves of fresh pain. Phoenix Suns Arena went sickeningly silent for the second time this series. It was a reminder of how fragile a basketball team can be during the NBA’s postseason.

Paul admitted he was scared by the incident and how helpless and vulnerable he now feels on a basketball court. But this time, Paul shook off the damage and shot two free throws before calling it a night. Suns head coach Monty Williams didn’t want to say much, but seemed encouraged by Paul’s swift recovery.

“He seems to be OK,” Williams said. “He told me that he felt like he had his strength and that’s a good thing.”

“A little banged up, but I’ll be alright,” Paul added.

It’s a sad reality that Paul will likely be dealing with this injury for the remainder of the postseason. It’s also a blessing that Tuesday’s game was a blowout when Paul was forced out of the game. It’s also a blessing that Payne is performing so well that a compromised Paul no longer seems like a death sentence.

This is not to diminish the impact of Booker on Tuesday. The Suns star seized the moment on demand, just like a true NBA superstar. He showed off the range of his diverse arsenal, a throwback who is a devastating offensive force without relying on three-point shots. That’s a rarity in professional basketball.

“When he’s got it going from every level, we can be hard to stop,” Williams said.

But Payne’s contributions are far more improbable and now match his improbable backstory, a player who candidly admits he’s fighting for his job every time he steps on the court. The chip on his shoulder is not a cliché. He has earned every minute of his extended playing time in this series.

“There’s no letdown (from the absence of Paul) when he’s scoring like that, which is something we value,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, the Lakers look wobbly and overrated. James no longer seems capable of carrying a marginal supporting cast to the finish line. Paul noted the importance of finishing off the Lakers in Game 6 to get him some extended rest. And at halftime, former Suns legend Charles Barkley delivered an epic takedown of the oft-injured Anthony Davis.

“I call him Anthony “Street Clothes” Davis … because he’s always in street clothes,” Barkley said.

That criticism will reverberate throughout Los Angeles in the next 24 hours. James will summon all of his willpower in Game 6. Eliminating the second greatest player in NBA history in the first round of the playoffs will be much harder than it appeared on Tuesday.

Still:

Remember the obstacles once in our path? It felt like a curse when the Suns drew the Lakers as a first-round opponent. It felt even worse when Paul went down with a serious injury in Game 1. Somehow, the Suns are one victory removed from the sweetest reward a Suns fan could ever imagine:

Eliminating a nemesis and a king in the first round of the playoffs.

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Suns 1 win away from sweetest reward Valley fans could ever imagine