On Sunday, the 2nd-seeded Phoenix Suns were energy-boosted by their home crowd and excised a lot of demons with a dominating win over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
The crowd, which was thankfully at least 90% Suns fans despite Laker fans deep pockets and willingness to travel, was so hyped up they issued deafening boos to the Lakers starting lineup introductions after drowning out the arena music on a Chris Paul pregame alley-oop dunk in warmups.
“When I came out and saw that many people and heard the noise,” head coach Monty Williams recalled. “I was like, ‘Holy smokes, this is pretty cool.’ I had to get myself under control emotionally because I hadn’t been in that environment in a long time, and it certainly helped us tonight to have our fans, as crazy as Suns Nation is, going nuts like that for our guys.”
The crowd carried the Suns to a 30-21 first-quarter lead with a 15-4 run, and only got quiet when Chris Paul looked lost to a shoulder injury, partially recovered when Devin Booker picked up the slack and blew the top off the gym when Paul returned to the floor a few minutes later.
Even when the game got heated and ugly in the second half — including an ejection for Cameron Payne and a parade to the free throw line for the Lakers — the crowd had the Suns’ backs the whole way.
“That’s the most intense game I’ve ever played in my life,” center Deandre Ayton (21 points, 16 rebounds) said. “I was really quiet the whole time, just trying to play hard. I was just really embracing everything that was going on, and the fans, that was a concert. That was a concert.”
The Suns won the opener, 99-90, and in the process kept the home court advantage over the Lakers in their first round series. They also reminded themselves, us fans and the Lakers that they really are the second-best team in the league and not an easy first round fodder.
Devin Booker was a star, scoring the most points in a playoff debut (34) in the Suns 54-year franchise history, while adding 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Deandre Ayton was the best big man in the game, becoming only the second player in NBA history to total 20+ points on 90+% shooting with 15+ rebounds in their playoff debut. Even losing yet another All-Star point guard — omg isn’t it just like the Suns to watch their star point guard having to leave a playoff game to injury?!? — didn’t dampen the Suns shine.
But that’s all behind us now.
If the Suns don’t win game two, all this good work is lost.
The Suns got a win, but now the series really really starts. The Lakers are unfazed. All they need is to win Game Two to take home court advantage back from the Suns and set themselves up for a series win in six games with three of the next four in LA.
In fact, LeBron James has made a career out of losing game ones and then coming back to win the series. Just last year, his Lakers lost game one in both of their first two rounds and still won each series 4-1.
Lakers, 2020 Playoffs, Round 1 and Round 2
“We just need to make more shots,” James said plainly after losing to the Suns in Game One this year. He credited their defense for holding the Suns to 99 points and iterated over and over again that they just need to make shots to win going forward.
Making shots. A year ago, the Lakers got hot in the postseason Bubble, which carried them to the championship.
Let’s look at how good the LeBron James/Anthony Davis supporting cast has been at making shots this season compared to last season compared to the 2020 Playoffs. I’ll even limit this season’s numbers to their hot 21-6 start with everyone healthy. Shooters are better with LeBron and AD taking everyone else’s attention.
A little bit worse across the board when comparing the regular seasons, especially when you consider this season is a small sample size. But they weren’t demonstrably worse in their hot start, which should tell you that as long as LeBron and AD are in the lineup, the Lakers are really really good.
Fact is, the Lakers went from very good to GREAT in the playoffs on offense, despite their game-one woes in the first two rounds. Makes you think everyone went nuts, right?
We all remember ‘Playoff Rondo’, but when you take a deeper dive it was really simply LeBron and AD just deciding they were going to dominate the floor.
LeBron and AD generally account for half of the Lakers’ shots the past two seasons, so if they up their percentages to 56+% then it stands to reason that they’re fairly unstoppable as long as everyone around them isn’t trash.
This year, when they’ve played, LeBron and AD have been consistent in their regular-season scoring rates. About the same shots, the same conversion percentage, everything.
Yet in game one on Sunday, they only accounted for 29 of the Lakers 76 field goals (38%) and only made 37.9% of those shots. Way down from anything they have done in the past two years together.
That’s what you need to watch out for in game two: a much more aggressive game from each of the Lakers stars. Expect them to take half the Lakers shots and make at least half of what they shoot. Anthony Davis in particular was really bad in game one, making only 5 of 16 shots.
Sure, the Lakers will adjust their defensive game plan to stifle Booker a bit more, and to rotate better to deter Ayton at the rim more.
But the real adjustment is simply LeBron and AD playing like LeBron and AD.
That’s when the series really becomes a series.