On May 16 the Phoenix Suns learned that the Los Angeles Lakers would be their first playoff foe in over a decade. The 51-win Suns, who earned the number two seed in the Western Conference, would become the first two seed ever not to be favored in the first round matchup. Early odds predicted the Los Angeles Lakers as -300 favorites. Certainly the defending world champs would defeat the —
Suns in 6.
As we prepare to embark on the Western Conference Semifinals vs. the Denver Nuggets, let’s stop and appreciate what this team just accomplished. Let’s cherish the rollercoaster ride this past two weeks has been. Let’s relish the fact the Suns downed one of their rivals and in doing so banished LeBron James from the playoffs in the first round for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.
Entering the series, the history had not been kind to the Suns relative to the Lakers. 12 times they had met in the postseason, only 4 times they had won. Granted, Phoenix had won 4 of the previous 6, but our last memory of playoff basketball was walking off the court as Kobe and the Lakers were on their way to the NBA Finals.
I documented the long and turbulent history between the two franchises prior to the start of the playoffs. Looks like I’ll have to add another chapter.
So this is my addendum, my addition to the Suns vs. Lakers saga that will continue long after I’ve chugged my last beer. I’m documenting this series so we can all remember, for two weeks in late May/early June of 2021, how great it felt to collectively chant “Beat LA”.
And how the Suns delivered.
The last two weeks reminded us all what it is like to experience playoff basketball. As many members of the Suns have stated, each game has its own distinct personality. We have experienced the butterflies and anxiety leading up to each matchup, the thrill of every possession, and the elation that winning brings.
Let’s look at those different game personalities:
Game 1: The “Oh No” Game
The series began with the Devin Booker and the Suns showing that the moment they’ve been waiting for wasn’t too big for them. Booker has be preparing for an opportunity to shine on the big stage, and shine he did. The team posted 32 points in their first quarter of playoff basketball and Suns fans were dishing out high fives and blowing up Twitter.
Phoenix looked like the better team early on in Game 1, going up 38-29 in the second quarter. That is when we all felt the collective “oh no” feeling when Chris Paul hit the floor in anguish, clutching his right neck/collarbone area. A silence fell over the home crowd and concern echoed through the corridors of Phoenix Suns Arena.
I myself was at the Chupacabra Tap Room in Mesa with my podcasting partners Matthew Lissy, Greg Esposito, and Saul Bookman. The looks we gave each other will be forever etched in my mind.
Espo said it best:
We can’t have nice things…— Espo (@Espo) May 23, 2021
Paul, in a true testament to his resiliency, attempted to battle through the numbness and lead his team. He did not look right. But neither did the Lakers. The defending NBA Champions could not stop Deandre Ayton (21 points, 16rebounds) or Devin Booker (34 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds). The team persevered and, thanks to their defense, outlasted LA.
The Suns surprised many of the national pundits by winning Game 1, 99-90.
Game 2: The “Sloppy” Game
We didn’t know how effective Paul would be entering the second game of the series. The quick turnaround time — just one day off in between games — didn’t bode well for th aging point guard. He suited up and gave it a go.
Paul struggled through the 22:47 minutes he played and the impact of what the Point God brings could be felt. The team sputtered on offense, and although they played well on defense, they could not stop the force that was Anthony Davis (34 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists...21 free throw attempts). The Unibrow, who had struggled in Game 1, reminded everyone that he is a top 5 NBA talent.
The second quarter was an offensive wasteland. For both teams. Although both teams ended with 23 points scored in the period, it felt as if no one could get one to go through the cylinder. The opportunity to take advantage of another poor shooting night by Los Angeles was right there. The Suns could just not execute.
The Lakers owned the glass and the paint. The Suns turned the ball over 13 times. It was a sloppy affair all together.
Booker (31 points) earned some garbage time free throws to pad the stats, but the health of Chris Paul was clearly the primary concern for Phoenix. The Suns didn’t look right. Anthony Davis did.
The Suns kept pace with the Lakers as they were -6 in Q1, even in Q2 and Q4, and -1 in Q3. It wasn’t a dominating win for the Lakers, but a win nonetheless.
Phoenix lost by 7, 109-102, and the series shifted to the City of Angels.
Game 3: The “Inexperienced Suns” Game
Many, myself included, thought sitting Chris Paul in Game 3 would be the right move. He didn’t looked like himself. His impact was negated; his effeteness an afterthought. Following Game 3 there would be a two day rest period until Game 4 commenced. Let Cameron Payne take his minutes and allow him to heal.
Paul wanted to play. And you don’t tell Chris Paul he can’t play.
The Suns as they were punched in the mouth and allowed their inexperience to dictate their response. The moment that the Lakers realized that they were the Suns’ feelings, they went for the jugular.
That being said, Los Angeles acted like a team that had never won a Game 3 before. Do I say this with spite? Of course. I’m a Suns fan. Seeing your team embarrassed is one thing, but the way that the Lakers were celebrating during the game was frustrating. I know the old adage “well if you can’t stop it then don’t complain”, but, like the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes, my disdain for the Lakers did the same.
I hope the Lakers enjoyed their little back and forth between LeBron and Andre Drummond. It would be the last time they would celebrate in the series. The Lakers, led once again by Davis (34 points, 11 rebounds), trounced Phoenix 109-95 and took a 2-1 series lead.
Game 4: The “Put me in, Coach” Game
On a Sunday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, questions surrounded whether or not Chris Paul would get another chance to play. He gutted through the previous affair but was clearly still hurt. The advantage entering Game 4 is that Paul had those two extra days of rest. He discussed his availability prior to the beginning of the game with head coach Monty Williams.
“He said, ‘Coach, let me start, and if you don’t think I’m looking like I normally do, then take me out and we’ll have to go in a different direction,’” Williams said. “This is one of those situations that I had to trust the player.”
Paul looked much better as the game began, opting to take a couple of three-pointers in the first half. Although he didn’t make them, the fact that he felt comfortable enough to do so meant that he was feeling better. The strength was returning to his right shoulder.
Booker had 15 first-half points and Jae Crowder, who was shooting 25.9% from the field through the first three games, added 10 on 4-for-7 shooting. Phoenix was on their way to a 54-50 halftime lead when, with 48 seconds left, the series turned.
Anthony Davis was 2-for-8 when he drove to the basket late in the second. He missed the layup, but more importantly he caught his left leg on Deandre Ayton’s. The result was a strained left groin.
The Suns took advantage of the fact that Davis was not present. Their defensive anchor was absent. Which meant the Suns could run more pic-and-roll knowing Davis wasn’t involved with the switch. Phoenix outscored the Lakers 46-42 in the second half and won the game 100-92. Chris Paul (18 points, 9 assists) stated after the game, “I told them (his teammates), ‘I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but if you all feel like I’m out here looking like some trash, just tell me and I’ll get out.’”
He didn’t look like trash. He looked like a man determined to will his team to victory.
Game 5: The “Hey bud, let’s party” Game
In a pivotal matchup back home at Phoenix, knowing that the winner of Game 5 in a tied series goes on to win 82.5% of the time, the Suns put on a show. It was one of the most memorable environments this writer has ever been a part of. Electricity was in the air. 16,000 strong thundered down chants of “Beat LA”.
Devin Booker responded to the pressure of the postseason by scoring 18 points in the first quarter. Cameron Payne added 10. After outsourcing the Lakers 32-10 in the second quarter and pushing the halftime lead to 30, the route was on. It was time to party.
It wasn’t a stress-free game, however. Chris Paul went down in agony, clutching his previously-injured shoulder following a boxout by Wesley Matthews. Everyone in the arena put down their drinks and raised their eyebrows with concern. He immediately headed to the locker room. Shortly thereafter he returned to the bench and cheered his team on to victory.
On the other side of the court, LeBron James spent the game huffing and puffing, throwing the ball away and rolling his head. His frustration was palpable. It was evident that he felt disdain for his teammates as they missed shot after shot. In the fourth quarter he was headed to the locker room, never to return.
I’ve had the honor of seeing Michael Jordan play in person. I’ve witnessed the verbal barrage from someone who wants his team to be as great as he is. I’ve never seen, in person, someone flat out quit on his team the way I saw LeBron on that Tuesday evening. GOAT my ass.
Booker (30 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) rose to the occasion and led Phoenix to a 115-85 Game 5 victory. With a series advantage of 3-2, the chance to close the Lakers out was present. Closing out an opponent is tough in the playoffs. Doing it on the road is harder. Doing it with a team full of first-time playoff players?
Game 6: The “BDB” Game
The national media, the majority of which had chosen the Lakers to win in 6 or 7 games, began doubting their chance of being correct. Following the Game 5 display, how would LeBron respond? Would he be able to get his teammates involved? When would be the right time — we interrupt what the national media thinks to inform you that Devin Booker don’t care, baby.
For those of you who watch/listen to the Suns JAM Session Podcast, you know what “BDB” means, and in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round, he proved why he is bestowed with that nickname. With the lights shining the brightest, in the house that Kobe built, Devin Booker was legendary. He came out scorching hot, hitting 6 first quarter three-pointers. Book didn’t care that Anthony Davis received a thumbs up from the Lakers medical staff prior to the start of the game. He attacked Davis to the point that he couldn't take the pain anymore.
At the end of the first quarter, it was Booker 22, Lakers 14. Jae Crowder was knocking down series-clinching deep balls as well, going 3-for-4 in the first half and 6-for-9 in the game. The unconscious Booker onslaught continued in the second quarter as he ended the first half with 33 points and a 21-point lead.
The Lakers became chippy, seeing the end in sight, and tried to get physical in the second half. Guess what? The Suns are physical, too. Los Angeles pushed and the Suns pushed right back. The Lakers closed to within 10 points — a lead that was once 29 points for Phoenix — but that is as closed as they would get.
When the Suns needed to kill the momentum, who was there to stop it? Chris Paul. He orchestrated a run in which he accounted for 10 consecutive Suns’ points by either scoring or assisting, and along with Devin Booker, closed out the Lakers. Booker (47 points, 11 rebounds) only shot the ball 22 times. That’s all it took to Beat LA.
Series over, Suns win 4-2.
Devin Booker averaged 29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in his first ever playoff series. Booker scored 12.8 points in the first quarter, accounting for 43.5% of the Suns total opening period points. He set the tone the entire series.
Deandre Ayton added 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds as well as a 143 offensive rating and 106 defensive rating in his inaugural playoff series. The Suns third leading scorer? Cameron “I bet Lakers fans hate this dude” Payne with 12.5 points.
LeBron James lost his first ever first round postseason series. He is now 0-1 against Chris Paul in the playoffs. The Suns were +53 with Anthony Davis not playing and -14 with him in. It is the first series win for Phoenix since sweeping the San Antonio Spurs in the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals.
It was an impressive showing for the purple and orange. And a helluva experience for the Suns faithful.
How would I describe this series? (Yes, I am interviewing myself) “Typical 2020-21 Suns” is my answer.
This team possesses a versatility on both ends of the ball that is designed for playoff basketball success. They can adjust. They can beat you in numerous different ways as we saw in this series. Ayton can beat you inside, Booker can beat you outside. They can get to the free throw line. They can shoot the three. They can shut you down. They are physical. And they don't back down.
The thirteenth chapter has been written in the rivalry of the Suns and Lakers. This chapter goes to the Suns.
Lucky number 13.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) June 4, 2021
The Suns played the Lakers for the 13th time in the playoffs, defeating them behind the efforts of a former 13th overall pick, winning Game 6 by 13 points.
Soak it in, Suns fans.