There was one decisive word to describe the atmosphere of this game: energy.
Energy, energy, energy – and both teams were diligent to ensure a losing plight didn’t come as a result of lack of effort.
Diving for loose balls, hard fouls, and ornery chatter were all ever-pertinent, and each unit pieced together a display that would epitomize an early Western Conference Playoff matchup.
And they could very well face off in a postseason series in these upcoming months.
The stars were aligned, although some (most notably Anthony Davis) were sidelined, tensions were high, and skills were on primetime as two titans squared off in one of this season’s most important matchups for both.
Lose, and the Lakers would surrender their second-seeded conference ranking.
And nothing could be more sweet for Phoenix than notching a victory against the defending champs.
Suns win, 114-104
The breadth of each team’s high-volume scoring potency was brandished rapidly upon tip-off.
Jae Crowder splashed home a 3-ball to open scoring for the affair, and Mikal Bridges added a trey of his own to go up 6-0 early.
The Lakeshow stormed back though as Markieff Morris knocked down a step-back jay, and Lebron began unraveling his laundry list of deadly offensive moves to plant his stake in the scoring column.
Chippy gameplay and chirping mouths began to ensue shortly thereafter – a sentiment that wholly confirmed the importance both units had placed on this matchup heading into the All-Star break.
Monty Williams showed a clear desire to dominate down low, and opportunities for Deandre Ayton soared with Marc Gasol sidelined. Ayton ate heartily as Chris Paul fed him low post entry passes, and his early dominance became a glaring weak point for Frank Vogel and his defense.
Phoenix took a 24-15 advantage after Cam Johnson sprayed in a deep ball, holding steadfast to a decent cushion as they entered the break up 29-21.
Clearly unhappy with his team’s rocky start, Lebron James decided to take the bucket-getting matters into his own mitts.
The King unleashed a torrent of high-powered attacking drives and rim-running cuts as he exerted his reign on the inside block, thrusting his squad right back into contention.
Talen Horton-Tucker joined Lebron in his scoring governance, and capitalized on a few isolation chances to keep the Lakers in it.
They showed a feverish uptick in defensive intensity as well, and a few timely interceptions led to easy transition openings that allowed Lebron to flash the timeless springiness of his 36-year old legs. Their fortitude on that end ignited a 16-5 run that afforded them a 37-36 advantage.
CP3 showcased his passing wizardry on numerous half-court possessions as he strove to preserve the Suns’ early push, and his calm savviness allowed them to recapture a cozy margin as the quarter wound down.
Phoenix dished out 12 assists on 13 made baskets in an epic display of efficiency, and kickstarted their own 8-2 run, aided by Dario Saric and Cam Johnson that gave them a near 10-point edge.
A Mikal Bridges buzzer-beating 3 put Pheonix up 60-53 heading into halftime. They began the half with an open corner 3, and finished it out in chameleon-like fashion.
“Finished like they started,” in the words of commentator Jim Jackson.
Devin Booker had 15 points at the break, while Bridges finished the first half with 11. Phoenix shot 10/17 from beyond the arc.
Lebron scored 15 through the first two.
The Suns went right back to Ayton’s post arsenal at the second half’s inception.
And when he wasn’t receiving one-on-one on ball opportunities, he was the giddy recipient of lofty alley-op tosses from Devin Booker.
Phoenix continued to burn bright offensively as the Book-Ayton duo kicked up their production.
Book put the Suns up nine after converting a 3-point play on a crafty layup maneuver, which enveloped into four points after James was hit with a tech.
Their momentum was quickly siphoned from their grasp however, when an ensuing technical on Booker culminated in his ejection from the game. He received the infraction after a not-so-friendly reaction towards a call in which he added a little extra mustard on a pass to the referee.
Devin Booker gets ejected after bouncing the ball at a ref pic.twitter.com/kEj0hoMRNz— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 3, 2021
The tossing was costly for Phoenix, who quickly surrendered their margin as LA blasted off on its own 7-0 run.
But Chris Paul is battle-tested – and it was here that he showed just how valuable his veteran presence is to this unit.
He was CCC – cool, calm and collected in the heat of the moment, and kept the Lakers at bay as he enkindled several scoring plays to bolster his team’s lead. Their pace of play hastened, but Paul is an efficiency-architect, and his work in creating avenues for points is unmatched.
Phoenix entered the fourth with a slim 86-83 advantage.
Ayton posted 17 through three.
Phoenix is a unit that refuses to be out-worked. Their best scorer was gone. They’d received litanies of infractions for their testiness. And still, they would not be denied.
The Lakers may have had more talent at their disposal throughout the fourth, but the Suns unloaded a slew of big-time hustle plays that ultimately closed the door on LA’s furious comeback attempt.
Chris Paul knocked down a 28-footer to take a 93-85 lead, before Abdel Nader and Mikal Bridges swished consecutive jumpers.
Lebron and company kept their fire ablaze, cutting the Suns’ edge to just five before Bridges pulled off a magnificent feat of court awareness and foot dexterity: saving a wayward-headed airball in Jae Crowder’s direction, who was waiting under the rim for an easy deuce.
Several scoring contributions from Saric kept the Suns’ lead close to double-digits, and while Lebron sprayed home a couple deadeye 3-balls, his efforts were rendered futile by Phoenix’s stifling defense.
Mikal Bridges’ thunder-jam was an emphatic deathblow to any inklings of Laker life, and Phoenix was able to escape Stales Center with a 114-104 victory.
Lebron would finish with 38 points on 16-24 from the floor in the loss.
The Suns meanwhile, move to the second spot in the West.
Player of the Game
Mikal Bridges: 19 PTS, 6-10 FG, 3-6 3PT, 6 REB, 5 AST