The Phoenix Suns were already riding murky waters ahead of the third game of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. Not only because of starting point guard Chris Paul’s lingering right shoulder contusion, but because of the territory they were entering.
Thursday’s game marked the Lakers’ first home playoff contest since April 18, 2013. For a franchise full of rich history, its fans were especially eager to end a long drought.
Los Angeles’ players responded early to the emotions of the game, building a lead with 18 of their 27 first-quarter points in the paint. However, the Suns kept themselves afloat by holding a one-point edge after the period.
Trailing just 43-40 at halftime, it appeared that Phoenix had weathered the Lakers’ early storm, giving it a chance to recapture home court advantage with a strong second half. Instead, the Suns were engulfed by a 21-9 Laker run to start the third quarter, which included a heavy wave of inside scoring from forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis in an eventual 109-95 defeat at Staples Center.
The Suns now trail their first-round series two games to one and will have to find a way to avoid drowning from consecutive losses a critical Game 4 in Los Angeles on Sunday.
“I kind of feel like our poise kind of wavered a little bit tonight,” said backup point guard Cameron Payne. “We just got to get back to us.”
In some ways, Thursday’s contest mirrored the Suns’ Game 2 struggles on Tuesday. Trailing just 53-47 at halftime, Phoenix gave up an 8-0 Los Angeles run to start the third quarter, allowing the Lakers to build a 14-point advantage the Suns had to work extremely hard to fight back from.
On Thursday, Los Angeles scored the first six points of the second half, leading to a Suns timeout fewer than two minutes into the period. Starting center Deandre Ayton, who finished with his third consecutive double-double at 22 points and 11 rebounds, scored on Phoenix’s next possession though it ultimately proved to be futile.
With the Suns trailing 49-42 with 9:11 left in the third, the Lakers went on a 15-7 run over the next 4:08 to take a 64-49 advantage. James and Davis combined for 19 of Los Angeles’ first 21 points in the quarter and 28 total, which was their most points in any quarter since becoming teammates before the 2019-20 season.
Anthony Davis and LeBron James combined to score 28 points in the 3rd quarter, their most points in any quarter since becoming teammates (reg. season and playoffs) pic.twitter.com/5AXxxhmCVq— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 28, 2021
By the end of night, Davis finished with his second straight double-double of the series with 34 points and 11 rebounds. James had 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds and was a game-high plus-15 while the Lakers scored 26 points in the paint during the third quarter and 58 in total.
Even though the Suns had a 32-point fourth quarter and used a 9-0 run to cut a deficit as large as 21 points to nine with 3:11 to go, it was too late to overcome the damage from the Lakers’ star duo.
“He (James) set the tone in the third quarter,” Davis said. “He’s feeling good, he told me he’s still got another gear. So we’re finding our groove, we’re finding our groove at the right time. But he set that tone for us and guys followed his lead and started attacking, making shots.”
The Suns’ struggles in the paint were only a fraction of their third-quarter woes and greater troubles this series. They missed 10 consecutive shots dating back to the first half before Ayton’s first score in the third and shot 9-of-23 in that period with a 2-of-9 clip from 3-point range.
Several players have failed to match their normal shooting output this series, perhaps none more than Jae Crowder, who had just nine points on 2-of-9 shooting (1-of-9 from 3-point range) before an ejection in the final minute of the game and has made just two of 20 3-point attempts overall. Backup forward Cameron Johnson made just one of six shot attempts on Thursday and Payne did not score at a high clip until his 11 fourth-quarter points.
With Paul still limited by his shoulder injury, he did not score on two second-half shot attempts. It allowed the Lakers to focus their attention on Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker, who finished with 19 points, six assists and four rebounds on 6-of-19 shooting while facing traps in isolation and being baited into pull-up 3-point attempts in high pick-and-roll actions, which he has not shown to make at a high clip.
Despite the Suns’ offensive struggles — they had 35 combined points in the second and third quarter — Booker maintained they have to have a better defensive and rebounding effort to be successful. Phoenix forced 20 Laker turnovers and turned those into 24 points, though it also lost the battle on the boards 51 to 35 and allowed 20 second-chance points.
“I think we just have to be ready for it,” Booker said. We’re three games in now, we have a lot of film to go over and look after.
“So like I said, it’s just back to protecting our paint, and I think that’s where a lot of their points are generated and a lot of their offense goes through.”
In the last two games, Los Angeles has combined for 100 points in the paint and 31 second-chance points. Davis has appeared to find his groove by recording back-to-back 34-point outings since his 13-point output in Game 1, and Lakers starting center Andre Drummond has also posted consecutive double-digit rebounding performances in under 25 minutes in Games 2 and 3.
The Suns made some rotational adjustments in Game 3, moving backup wing Torrey Craig into the rotation for backup forward Dario Saric. Craig hit three 3-pointers and had 11 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes, though it did not appear to be enough to help Ayton, who played over 41 minutes while being relied on for heavy all-around production for the second straight game.
Phoenix will have to find answers for its recent issues on both ends. If it doesn’t, its season could soon be washed away for good.
“Now, it’s just time to really just maintain and just play the best basketball we can play at the highest level,” Ayton said. “Not really look at lineups and what teams throw at us, but just playing, doing what we do is what helped us get here. Simple as that.”