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The Suns are up 3-2 and you should not be surprised

They are the #2 seed, after all.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Before Game 5 commenced on Tuesday night between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James appeared to be locked in. During his pregame routine, amidst the boo’s from the Phoenix faithful and the thundering chants of, “Beat L.A.”, the 17-time All Star and 4-time NBA champion carried himself like a focused man on a mission.

The Suns won 115-85 and took a 3-2 series lead.

In typical theatrical fashion, James left his teammates with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter. Perhaps that was their punishment for not properly supporting him. Some say he left to get treatment on the right ankle that plagued him this season. More proof that it is about the “me”, not the “we”, when it comes to LeBron? I’ll let you discuss that in the comments below.

As I’ve read the headlines and watched the ESPN analysis — which I know has become click bait — is the same story over and over: Suns win, but let’s talk about the Lakers’ deficiencies. I’m not a child. I understand why. The Lakers are one of, if not the most, storied franchises in history of the NBA. They are the defending World Champions. They have one of the greatest players ever on their roster.

So yeah, I get why the national pundits are looking at each other with puzzlement. They all picked the Lakers to win the series a week-and-a-half ago and now they have to find out why they were wrong.

When you look at this series, however, you need to see both sides of the story. Sure, Los Angeles has failed to execute. Anthony Davis being hurt is a massive storyline.

This isn’t about what’s wrong with the Lakers, however. This is about what’s right with the Suns.

I was fortunate enough to attend Game 5 last night and, outside of Game 6 of the 2001 World Series (Diamondbacks 15, Yankees 2), I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun at a game. Entering the arena, and knowing that the winner of the pivotal Game 5 wins the series at an 82.5% clip, you couldn’t help but be nervous. As stated above, LeBron looked locked in and ready to carry the team on his broad shoulders, seeing as Anthony Davis was ruled out.

And then the Phoenix Suns happened.

The atmosphere was electric. Kudos to you, Suns fans, as your clearly out numbered the Lakers fans in the building. An evening that began as an exhibition in cautious optimism turned into a party 16,000 strong.

I’ve watched every possession this team has played this season. I’ve seen the spurts of greatness, when everything seems to be clicking on both the offensive and defensive end. Throughout the 2020-21 season, we’ve seen it occur for five minutes here or a quarter there. On Tuesday night, we received a full game of Phoenix reaching their potential.

You can look at the Lakers stat line and “blame” them for underperforming. Or you can give the Suns credit for the defense they played, the aggressiveness in which they closed out on shooters, the team rebounding philosophy deployed by Month Williams, the forcing of 17 turnovers which led to 23 Phoenix points, and the shot deterrence at the rim. The Suns posted a team defensive rating of 84.9 and lowered their overall defensive rating to 101.0 thus far in the playoffs. Only the Milwaukee Bucks (95.4) have a better rating.

You can “blame” the Lakers for poor defense. Or you can give the Suns kudos for taking care of the ball, turning the ball over only 4 times. You do that and good things are going to happen.

It wasn’t an offensive explosion for the Suns relative to shooting in Game 5. Their 45.7 FG% would rank 58th out of their 72 regular season games. They only shot 33.3% from deep. We’ve yet to see the Suns truly unleash their offensive attack from three yet this series.

The shots they did hit were timely. Any micro-run the Lakers attempted were thwarted but a drive to the rim or a clutch three-pointer. The Suns bench outplayed the Lakers, lead by the efforts of Cameron Payne. His 10 first quarter points and the energy in which he played set the tone for Phoenix.

The national media is lost trying to figure out why the Suns hold a 3-2 lead in this series. The advantage that Phoenix has over the Lakers is perhaps more simple than most realize: Phoenix knows who they are.

You don’t earn the #2 seed in the Western Conference by doubting your identity. You embrace who you are and what you do well. What the Suns do well is play as a team. They hustle, knowing that it might night always benefit them on the stat sheet but it benefits the team as whole. They embody a defensive mindset. They play physical. They play for each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the Lakers in this series not hustle. Not get back on defense. Not run out on a fast break. Shrug their shoulders. Look to the bench to complain that, although they threw the ball out of bounds, it was a member of their teams fault, not theirs. Yes, I am describing what I saw from LeBron James on Tuesday night.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we see a performance like this for the Suns because, well, we’ve seen them play this way — although not in such a fantastic fashion — all season. The Suns earned the #2 seed, after all.

Credit the Suns for how they’ve approached this series. They only #2 seed ever the enter the First Round as an underdog? Phoenix doesn’t care. They know who they are.

They’re a team that is having fun. As Devin Booker said after Game 5, “Like I said earlier, the playoffs is fun. Every next game is the biggest game of my career. So it’s fun to be around this. It’s fun to prepare for it, it’s fun to get ready for. So we’re looking forward to it.”

Do the Lakers look like they’re having fun? Or do their role players look afraid of LeBron’s wrath? You know they James narrative: when he wins, it’s because of him. When he loses it’s because of them. Now you sit there for the last 5 minutes and take your punishment!

It is on the Game 6. Come Thursday evening, the Suns have a chance to take the Lakers upstairs, read them a story, and put them to bed.

Jae Crowder commented on the upcoming game. The Suns are going to, “Just wrap our heads around, ‘This is going to be the hardest game of the series.’ Hardest-played game of the series for both teams and obviously, we’re on the road, so we got to stay together.”

He added, “Especially when they go on a run and the crowd gets into it, we just got to stay together and weather the storm a little bit together, collectively and come out on top. But it’s going to be the hardest-fought game of the series, so that’s my message to our team, that’s my mindset going into it. It’s going to be the hardest game of the series.”

The crowd in Staples Center will be ready to cheer their team to victory. But if the Suns fluster the Lakers, how soon will it be until that crowd turns on their team? If the Suns come out strong, playing their game and knowing their identity, how long will it be until Laker Nation falters?

I can’t wait to hear LeBron blame the shortened off-season for his first ever first round exit. He should blame the Suns.

Suns in 6.

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