Devin Booker cornered an elbow ball screen from Deandre Ayton and stopped on the right side of the floor. The Phoenix Suns’ starting shooting guard pump faked, forced Los Angeles Lakers center Marc Gasol in the air and kissed a one-handed shot off the glass plus the foul, extending the Suns’ early lead.
Booker converted his 3-point play at the free-throw line, giving Phoenix a 16-10 advantage with 5:46 left in the first quarter. It was part of a 16-0 Phoenix run and an 18-point first quarter for Booker, who struggled to find a rhythm during the previous two games of his team’s first round series in Los Angeles.
The Suns continued to thrash the visiting Lakers in the second quarter, building a 30-point edge at halftime. It was a far different theme than a few nights ago, when Los Angeles treated Phoenix as a circus act during its blowout win in Game 3 last Thursday.
Much has changed since then. The Suns appear to have figured out the Lakers in their last two games, evidenced in their 115-85 annihilation of Los Angeles in Game 5 of their first round matchup on Tuesday night at Phoenix Suns Arena. Phoenix now leads the series three games to two and is on the cusp of eliminating the defending champions, something that seemed improbable mere days ago.
Booker’s one-handed shot was the epitome of the Suns’ shotmaking throughout the first half. But on a grander scale, it was a result of how they have appeared to figure out the Lakers: Get stops, push the ball in transition and don’t let them catch you.
“I think our whole team defense helped our offense,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “To be able to get stops and the way we played as far as force, executing the game plan allowed for our offense to play in flow.”
Booker’s shot — and several others — were a product of Phoenix’s refined defensive execution. After the Suns’ Game 3 loss on Thursday, Williams said his players needed to tighten their gaps on that end, allowing them to clog driving lanes and deny post touches for the Lakers’ bigs.
Phoenix has done just that. In the last two games, it has forced Los Angeles to shoot 45.5 percent of its shot attempts from 3-point range compared to 36.7 percent in Games 2 and 3. The Lakers have also scored just 38.4 percent of their points in the paint in Games 4 and 5 after dominating with 45.9 percent of their points inside during their two victories.
Rather than playing the Lakers out to the perimeter, the Suns are encouraging drives to the middle of the floor, where they have starting center Deandre Ayton anchored in the paint and ready to contest shots. Superstar forward LeBron James, who indicated he would be more aggressive without Anthony Davis in the lineup, instead shot 10 of his 19 attempts from beyond the 3-point line.
Without ample shotmaking from his supporting cast, James was suffocated by the Suns’ defense on his corner drives and post-ups. He made just two of six attempts from inside four feet, and Phoenix’s positioning allowed it to close possessions without awarding offensive rebounds.
“We’re just trying to continue to impose our will for 48 minutes, and it takes a lot,” said Suns starting forward Jae Crowder after the game. “It’s easier said than done...it takes everybody to be on the same page, our focus needs to be where it has been the past few games.”
From there, the Suns got out and ran. They had just 11 fast break points on Tuesday but turned 17 Laker turnovers into 23 points, including eight for 15 points in the first half.
Aside from Booker, who had a game-high 30 points on 13-of-23 shooting with seven rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes, backup point guard Cameron Payne had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 19 minutes. He had 14 of his points in the first half, using his burst off ball screens and hand-offs to make four of five shots while inside 10 feet from the rim.
“Cam is an attacker, a scorer who can pass,” Williams said. “So when he gives us that offensive punch off the bench, it allows for Book and (starting forward) Mikal (Bridges), DA, you have to play them. And it keeps the defense honest when you have your backup point guard come off the bench and score like that.”
Phoenix now ranks third among active playoff teams by recording 16.2 percent of its points in transition and is tied for fourth in transition points per game at 21.0. It has been a recipe that the Lakers have not been able to figure out.
“I think that was a tough part for us in the games that we lost, allowing them to set up their defense, not only the two points from the free-throw line, but them getting back and scouting our offense and knowing exactly what we’re doing,” Booker said. “And transition is kind of a free-for-all with the correct spacing, creators and shooters that we have.”
Phoenix, a heavy underdog in its first-round series, is one game away from eliminating the defending champion Lakers, though it expects a final win to be very difficult. The Suns will face the Lakers in Los Angeles in Game 6 on Thursday, where they will certainly have a do-or-die attitude with their season on the line.
Phoenix may also have a limited version of starting point guard Chris Paul, who left Tuesday’s game in the third quarter after re-aggravating his right shoulder contusion in a collision with Lakers shooting guard Wesley Matthews. Paul said after the contest he “will be alright” but appeared to be very emotional after the injury occurred and during his postgame press conference.
The Suns expect their next game to be the most difficult of the series. But given their adjustments, they’re very confident they can get the job done.
“This is my first experience in the playoffs, and just the mentality of, ‘The next game is the most important game of my career,’” Booker said. “It’s a fun thing for me to play with — we’re all locked in, man. Top to bottom, just feeling the energy at shootaround and through film sessions. Everything goes up a level, and it’s some fun basketball.”