DAN BICKLEY

Suns vanquish Lakers behind Devin Booker’s Mamba Mentality

Jun 3, 2021, 11:01 PM | Updated: Jun 4, 2021, 2:15 pm

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns in the...

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns in the fourth quarter during game six of the Western Conference first round series at Staples Center on June 03, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Fill a glass. Raise it high. A toast to the Valley’s first love.

Clink.

The Suns are moving on.

They have vanquished a nemesis and a king, and the postseason is just getting started. They survived a first-round playoff series against the defending NBA champions and the second-best player in history. They found their wings in an uphill series full of wild momentum shifts. They dealt LeBron James his first-ever first-round playoff exit.

At times, they rubbed salt in wounds. For most of the last two games, the Suns embarrassed the Lakers. They led by 30 points at halftime in a pivotal Game 5 and by 22 points after the first quarter in the decisive Game 6. It felt like karmic payback for all the garbage we’ve endured over the past decade.

Take a deep breath. Enjoy the view. Now that the clouds have lifted, the mountaintop is not that far away. The Suns have a legitimate, navigable path to the NBA Finals.

This must be our finest moment as a big-league sports town since … when, exactly? Alvin Gentry fighting off food poisoning in the Western Conference Finals against Kobe’s Lakers, hurling in a bucket so he wouldn’t miss a possession? The Diamondbacks winning a one-game playoff against the Rockies because their bearded relief pitcher hit a triple? Since Carson Palmer and the Cardinals survived two Hail Mary completions from Aaron Rodgers in the final minute of regulation?

The demolition of the Lakers feels much bigger. This was a miniseries full of twists, dirty fouls and hard left turns. This series was a celebration of Deandre Ayton, who was all man and no child; Cam Payne and his indomitable underdog energy; Chris Paul and his legendary toughness; Jae Crowder’s fearlessness; and most recently, Devin Booker.

Booker set the tone in Game 6, just like he did in Game 5. He lit up the Lakers with 22 points in the first quarter, 33 in the first half and 47 by the time his volcanic mouth almost got him ejected from Thursday’s game. He’s both polished and raw and utterly combustible — and I wouldn’t want him any other way.

Booker must have felt something deeply personal on Thursday, conjuring up his spiritual kinship with Kobe Bryant (“Be Legendary”); his current relationship with an L.A. celeb-icon (Kendall Jenner); his upstaging of LeBron in the final two games of this series, including a Mamba-like slaying of the Lakers.

Before the playoff started, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that beating LeBron on the big stage ranked among the hardest feats in sports. Booker made it look easy. Booker closed the door like an assassin, just like his idol demanded.

After the rollicking start, the game turned into a slow-leak nightmare. The Suns committed careless turnovers. Ayton wasn’t the same kind of beast. Payne fell apart, missing a wide-open layup and fumbling away an easy pass. The Suns lost their edge, intensity and aggression while waiting for the clock to expire. The final countdown was excruciating.

But the Suns were never truly threatened. They weren’t going to lose this game. They weren’t going to lose this series and here’s why:

In basketball, a selfless team can beat a super team. A sincere, cohesive group with great chemistry can topple a team with elite superstars, especially when one is aging and the other is fragile. And in the end, a fist will beat fingers every time.

The Suns have served the game of basketball with an inspiring team full of hardcore dudes and lovable goofballs, a team that doesn’t believe in shortcuts or load management. And after 11 long years of futility and dysfunction, look at us now.

The game finally loves us back.

Dan Bickley

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