EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker stars on stage he’s been waiting on, Suns eliminate Lakers

Jun 4, 2021, 1:14 AM | Updated: 2:14 pm
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers du...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers 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)

In a way, it felt right that the Phoenix Suns really had to earn eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers.

After going up by as many as 29 points, the Suns had to hold off a consistent Lakers flurry that slowly dwindled down the lead across the second half to as low as 10 with 8:06 remaining.

The Suns were a mess defensively and couldn’t stop fumbling the ball away offensively. They were going to have to regain focus. Doing “just enough” to squeak away with a victory in Game 6 on Thursday wasn’t going to cut it. This was the time to prove their inexperience wasn’t as big of a deal as many, including this reporter, made it out to be.

In a moment that helped them win the series and potentially do even more further in the playoffs, they did lock back in and pulled away to a 113-100 win.

The only guy that didn’t need to lock back in was Devin Booker. He said himself he was from the moment he woke up Thursday morning, to the point where he struggled to take his traditional pregame nap.

Boy, did it show.

Booker scored 33 of his 47 points in the first half.

That included seven, yes, seven three-pointers in the first half, besting his previous career-best in the regular season of six. And six of them came in the first quarter.

“Players like Book have a determination about them,” head coach Monty Williams said. “I’ve said this a number of times: He doesn’t run from the moment. And in this particular case, the moment was the whole game.”

Booker outscored the Lakers 22-14 in the first quarter and the Suns’ lead was 22, helped out by three triples from Jae Crowder, who was terrific with 18 points and eight rebounds.

The Lakers bafflingly started Anthony Davis, and I can say bafflingly now because Davis clearly was not healthy enough on his strained left groin to play, showing severe limitations in his movement. Who knows how he got cleared to play, but he did, and the Suns picked on him early to get to an early edge. Davis only played the first five minutes and change before coming out injured and being ruled out the rest of the game.

Phoenix’s lead got to its high point of 29 early in the second quarter, and as the quarter got older, the Suns’ inexperience showed. The Lakers were starting to tighten up a bit, all while the Suns loosened up.

“We knew the game wasn’t over. We knew they were gonna go out swingin’,” Booker said.

LeBron James saw a vulnerable defense that lost its focus on containing dribble penetration and exploited it. He picked up all 10 of his points in the third quarter on layups and dunks, some of his teammates started hitting 3s and the Suns’ four turnovers allowed the Lakers within 13 when there was only a quarter to go.

At that point when the Suns’ advantage was cut to 10 with eight minutes to go, that’s where Phoenix’s experience from playoff-esque games was apparent.

“We’ve been tested. This group has been tested this year,” Booker said.

What Chris Paul said about himself after the game spoke to what occurred over the next 76 seconds.

“I haven’t won a championship or whatever but ain’t too many people that know this game better than I do, guarantee you that,” he said. “And imma put the work in, imma enjoy it with my teammates and we always gonna fight and we always gonna have a chance.”

Paul got his signature midrange jumper to fall, set up a Mikal Bridges deep ball and then hit another one of those pull-ups. The self-stabilizing act that Paul had performed all year would be there in the postseason too, this time a 7-0 run to get the lead quickly ballooned back up to 17.

A brief final push from the Lakers with a 6-0 spurt was thwarted by Crowder’s fifth 3 of the night, and his sixth two minutes later served as the dagger.

James finished with 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks. It was not the all-out onslaught we are used to seeing from James in elimination playoff games, yet another indicator of his health not being in a good spot, and his push in the third quarter was probably the best he could manage given that.

The Suns as a team shot 18-of-35 (51.4%) from deep, the avalanche we knew was coming eventually after Phoenix was off shooting the ball all series. Booker had eight of those on his own and added 11 rebounds to his 47 points.

Everything rounds back to him, as always.

Look, anyone in Booker’s position would have been chomping at the bit for this kind of stage. After the amount of losing he went through, who wouldn’t be.

Ever since even last year when the Suns started playing in competitive games consistently, let alone the level of basketball they’ve reached this season, Booker would always say it was what he was waiting on.

But for him to step on that stage for the first time, get the spotlight draped over him and thrive? How?

Booker said “imagination is key” for his postseason preparation. The hoop head and student of the game knew what to expect of intense, physical postseason basketball. He tried the best he could to mentally put himself there before the real deal.

That type of focus and flat-out ability with his mind shined brighter than any talent Booker has shown in his six years with Phoenix. It should be no surprise that his team embodied that part of him to get past the Lakers.

And it has Booker evolving before our very eyes.

“This is the moment that he wanted,” Williams said. “I’m sure he’s looking forward to the next one. I’m watching him on the fly go from a guy who scored a ton of points (and) now he’s turning into a guy who can lead a team in the playoffs and be in a different class.”

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