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Young Suns growing up one game at a time, focusing on the game not the antics

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Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have been the Suns best two players in round one.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As documented ad nauseam to discount the Phoenix Suns playoff chances this year despite the league’s 2nd best regular season record, most of this team’s most important players are experiencing the playoffs for the very first time. Usually, the increased level of play and physicality hits hard on rookie playoff teams at the worst possible times. Hence, so many predictions of the Lakers beating the Suns in round one.

The series is now all tied up at 2-2, with each team winning their first and losing the second game at home. Now the Suns — thanks to all the work they put in this year — have Games 5 and (if necessary) 7 at home, where playoff rookies generally perform their best.

Game 5 is Tuesday night, on TNT at 7:00 PM in the primy-est of prime time slots.

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are four of the team’s top seven rotation players having to cut their playoff chops on the defending champs, Los Angeles Lakers, thanks to Lakers injuries dropping their seed down to 7th. On paper, the now-healthy* Lakers are potentially the best 7th seed of all time.

*I think it’s bad karma to speculate on injuries to the opposition, so I assume Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be healthy for the rest of the series

But the Suns don’t play games on paper, or even in video game simulations. They have to play each game out on the hardwood in front of millions of fans.

Which means their young rotation players are learning about the playoffs in real time, as we’re watching and dissecting every play.

“Every game has its own different personality,” Devin Booker said after the Game 4 win. “I think there’s something to be said about the highs and lows throughout. Proud of our team for a lot of us, this being our first experience out there, having the mental ability to do that.”

Booker is in his 6th NBA season but is still just 24 years-old and facing the pressure of being the league’s best defense’s number one target every play down the court. Booker’s efficiency is down, but his overall numbers are strong: 25.3 points (40% shooting), 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds in a whopping 41 minutes per game.

Fellow newbie Deandre Ayton, at 22 years-old the youngest player on the floor for either team, has been excellent all series in his role as anchor of the defense (Suns have the 5th best defensive rating among the 16 playoff teams) and rim-running big. He is only the 6th player in NBA history to post at least 14 points and 10 rebounds in each of the first four playoff games of his career, and he’s making 81% of his shots along the way.

Together, Booker and Ayton have carried the Suns while Chris Paul and Jae Crowder have struggled. Booker is now forced to be the sage veteran that handles all the Lakers’ attention.

“I think teams know your plays,” Booker says of playoff basketball. “They know what you’ve done all year, they know your first, second and third option. So it just comes down to being able to play and having the correct spacing and executing.”

The young Suns have struggled with creating the same good looks they’ve gotten all year on offense, but their defense and on-court intensity have compensated enough to even the series.

After getting embarrassed by the Lakers showboating in an easy Game Three win at home in LA, and sending the Lakers to the line way too often for free points, the Suns responded strongly in Game Four to take away the Lakers greatest strengths and forced them into doing things they didn’t want to do.

“I think we just played without fouling,” Booker said. “The past couple games, there’s been some calls that slowed down our game. If you’re taking it out from the free-throw (line) every possession, it gives them a chance to set their defense. So just playing without fouling, getting the ball out and playing in transition, like we’ve been playing most of the year.”

The Suns surrendered only 21 free throws on Sunday after giving up 31 and 30 in the previous two losses.

“We crashed the glass, we kept them off the (free-throw) line,” backup point guard Cameron Payne, a veteran of one playoff as a rookie in 2016, said after. “I mean, we kind of packed the paint in today, kept them off the offensive glass. I mean, they’ve been beating us up on the offensive glass. It seems like whoever wins the offensive rebound battle kind of wins, whoever get the most free throws kind of wins. So we knew we had to make them shoot threes and pack the paint. Just had to keep them out of the paint tonight.”

Game Four was an emotional microcosm of the whole series, with the Lakers taking a 10-point lead in the second quarter followed by the Suns taking a 15-point lead in the third.

“But you can see when the lead gets to five to 10 either way, a lot of emotions come out,” Booker said.

This time, the Suns kept their wits about them when the Lakers were starting to showboat again, and worked their way back into the game (even taking the lead before Anthony Davis went down with a groin sprain).

The Suns were greatly helped by their two top veterans — Chris Paul and Jae Crowder — playing their best games of the series. Paul had been severely hampered by a shoulder strain and Jae Crowder had forgotten how to make a basket. They averaged less than 15 points per game between them after averaging nearly 30 combined points per game in the regular season.

But on Sunday, both players showed up big, combining for 35 points in the Suns win. Every player interviewed after the game expressed incredible relief in getting most of Chris Paul back in the must-win. Now the Suns have hope that Paul will be better and better as each game goes along.

“I think every second or every minute, it’s getting better,” Booker said of Paul’s shoulder woes.

The narratives in each series can sway from game to game. After being the much more physical team through Games Two and Three, the Lakers came out of Sunday’s loss accusing the Suns of dirty play and bias from the referees. Jae Crowder brushed off that talk, just as Monty Williams had done earlier.

“It’s a physical brand of basketball that both teams are imposing their will on,” Crowder said of ‘dirty’ accusations. “So we’re not complaining when they do stuff to us, so just trying to play basketball at the end of the day. Trying to keep it clean and play basketball, because we know playing dirty and whatever they think we’re playing is not going to get us wins at the end of the day.”

“I’ll never respond to narratives because that’s what they are,” Williams said. “We know the kinds of guys that we brought in, we know the kind of people and the integrity of our players and our organization. And we’re not going to field any questions or even give it any attention when people say (that) kind of stuff, those kinds of things about us.”

Now we get to see how the Lakers respond to the Suns rediscovered physicality. After the Suns beat up the Lakers a week ago in Game One, they imposed their own will by attacking the glass on every possession. It took the Suns three games to respond, which they did on Sunday.

Let’s see how Game Five unfolds on Wednesday night.

“We going back home,” Chris Paul said. “Phoenix, we’re going to need you.”

The Suns are allowing up to 16,000 fans into Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday night. Last week, they allowed just under 12,000 fans and had 90% of them supporting the home team. Let’s hope and pray the near-sellout crowd on Tuesday will have the same ratio.

GO SUNS!