EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns exit in-season tournament in controversial fashion vs. Lakers

Dec 5, 2023, 11:47 PM | Updated: Dec 6, 2023, 8:22 am

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dives for the ball against Jaxson Hayes #11 of the Los Angeles ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dives for the ball against Jaxson Hayes #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the first half during the 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament quarterfinals at Crypto.com Arena on December 05, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Well, the Phoenix Suns sure made the NBA In-Season Tournament eventful.

After forcing other Western Conference teams to catch them for the sole wild card spot, they exited in the quarterfinals in dramatic and controversial fashion, falling 106-103 to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The majority of the conversation will go toward the last few minutes and two calls by the officials instead of the position the Suns put themselves in. The latter impacted the game’s conclusion more but a rough mistake by the officials should still get a fair bit of attention.

Phoenix put itself in a deep hole after an awful first half but fought back to keep it down to one possession for most of the next two quarters. It would come down to crunch time, where LeBron James began the fourth quarter scoring or assisting on the Lakers’ first 19 points.

A Kevin Durant 3 with 1:02 remaining put the Suns within three. And after the Lakers came up empty, both James and Anthony Davis were under the basket, giving the Suns a chance to run. Devin Booker started that process and was fouled with numbers, a clear take foul situation the Suns motioned for once the whistle was blown. The rule, however, is that no take fouls can be called under two minutes. So, it was just a sideline out of bounds for Phoenix.

Booker scored on a layup at 29 seconds left to make it a one-point game, and as the Lakers were situating the possession, everyone waited for them to inevitably take all the time off the shot clock and put the ball in James’ hands. But then Austin Reaves got a ball screen on the right wing from Davis, and while it looked like Reaves was just going to wait and get the ball to James, no one was defending him. Grayson Allen and Durant miscommunicated on whether they were switching or not.

So, Reaves showed zero hesitation and drilled a wide-open 3 to go up four, 105-101, seemingly the dagger at 15 seconds left.

Durant got another bucket to pull the Suns within two points, and Phoenix put fullcourt pressure on to try and force an error. Reaves got free but then lost his handle, and in that moment, James was attempting to call for a timeout. Since Reaves didn’t have possession anymore, it should not have been granted. But it was with 7 seconds left.

The official in the pool report claimed to see on postgame video that Reaves pinned the ball to his left leg, warranting possession. That, though, does not explain how in the above video, the referee’s hand goes up to award the timeout while the ball is rolling on the floor.

Davis was fouled and only made one free throw, giving the Suns a chance to tie before Durant missed a 30-footer shortly before the buzzer went off.

It was incredible that the Suns were 1) in a spot to win this game and 2) got there as quickly as they did after what occurred in the first half.

Phoenix turned the ball over 10 times in the first quarter, most of which were forced by the Lakers’ outstanding defensive pressure and presence both on and off the ball. Booker is normally terrific at dissecting a defense and finding where the space is, because there’s always going to be an opening somewhere, but he looked like the second-year guard who couldn’t buy a beer at a bar yet learning through his mistakes we saw over five years ago. As the point guard, Booker’s inability to find the attacking avenues hurts much more now than when it would occasionally happen in previous years.

We were in a “this game should not be as close as it is” situation throughout that before L.A. widened the gap to 15 early in the second quarter. The Lakers then proceeded to miss 10 straight shots to allow Phoenix to get within four until problems on the offensive glass and with turnovers restored a 12-point edge at halftime.

L.A. at that time was a ridiculous +18 in shot attempts thanks to a 12-4 advantage in offensive rebounds and the Suns’ 13 turnovers to the Lakers’ four. Phoenix was unable to make this up at the foul line, where L.A. was +1 in points, so the Lakers took 40% shooting against 46% shooting and improbably had a double-digit lead.

Davis (16 shot attempts) had more than Booker and Durant combined (14) at the half. James added 13, meaning one team was far better than the other at limiting a star duo.

The teams swapped levels of urgency, with the Suns’ 9-of-11 start to the third quarter putting them quickly up three. L.A. recovered after getting briefly stunned by that and got us those tight last 18 minutes.

James was the best player on the floor with 31 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and five steals with two turnovers. Phoenix had Eric Gordon as the primary defender on him, electing to give the offense maximum spacing over putting adequate size on James. Head coach Frank Vogel is obviously familiar enough with James to make that type of decision soundly but James roasted them in the fourth quarter and his key two buckets late were off targeting Suns center Jusuf Nurkic, the second straight win in L.A. versus the Suns he’s done that in.

Davis added 27 points (10-of-26) and 15 rebounds without a turnover. He and James were both consistently going downhill, something that is not consistent from them in the regular season.

This was easily Booker’s worst game of the season. He shot 6-of-16 for 21 points to go with 11 rebounds, six assists and seven turnovers. Phoenix, like every NBA team, will run its fair share of “empty corner” possessions to give a scorer one full side of the court to itself. This keeps help defenders away, but the Lakers didn’t really care and sent them over anyway, like they did in the second game of the season. Watch Allen’s movement here on this possession and you’ll see how the Suns eventually countered it.

With that being said, the coverages repeatedly stifled the Suns and Booker. Getting Bradley Beal (low back strain) in the fold will help find the solutions greatly. Booker also has to be much better like he’s proven to be.

Durant was ultra efficient with 31 points (12-for-17). He also had seven rebounds, four assists, five turnovers and one injury scare.

In the early fourth quarter, Durant pursued a loose ball and took a knock on his right knee, which he grabbed at before getting up. On the next possession, he was trapped, and while trying to maneuver out of it, rolled his left ankle on the foot of a Laker. Durant went down and immediately grabbed it as well before staying in after a timeout.

While he kept playing, ankle sprains can swell up afterward, so his status is one to watch on Phoenix’s next injury report. That’s what happened to Booker in Toronto and he missed a game because of it.

Allen stepped up with 21 points to help offset Reaves’ 20.

The shot discrepancy ended at +27 to the Lakers, who were ahead 21-8 on offensive rebounds and turned it over 10 times compared to the Suns’ 22. Phoenix is usually great about winning the free-throw battle but Los Angeles actually got four more points there (21-17). That is how the Lakers can win while shooting 37%.

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