Devin Booker was more than ready for his close-up.
The defending champion Lakers with LeBron James were supposed to have the playoff experience advantage, while the Suns with Booker were the playoff newbies.
You couldn’t tell on Sunday afternoon. Booker looked completely at home in his first playoff appearance. He carved up the NBA’s top-ranked defense — not just with his 34 points, but also with his playmaking when the Lakers started throwing hard double teams at him. Booker kept making the smart read and pass, the Suns kept the ball moving, and everyone seemed to knock down shots.
Meanwhile, the Lakers played like the team without urgency from the first half of the play-in game against the Warriors.
The result was a 99-90 Suns win in the series opener. Game 2 is Tuesday night in Phoenix.
This seemed like the kind of game the Lakers could steal on the road, especially after Chris Paul had to leave the game for several stretches with what the team called a right shoulder contusion (although it seemed to bother his neck and trapezius muscle). CP3 caught a friendly-fire stray elbow from teammate Cam Johnson going for a rebound in the second quarter, left, returned to a standing ovation, but was hesitant dribbling with his right hand or shooting the rest of the half.
CP3 came out for the second half but kept struggling with his handles — something odd to see for a guy who normally has the ball on a string — and went back to the locker room with five minutes left in the third. He returned again, and hit a key shot down the stretch, but was not his All-NBA self.
Not that it mattered the way Booker was playing.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) May 23, 2021
“Chris went down early and that just got our team more locked in and understand that every possession matter,” Booker said in his ESPN walk-off interview. “It was a big win for us.”
The Lakers couldn’t buy a shot when they needed it. LeBron shot 6-of-13 but was at least +5 for the game — the Lakers were -14 in the 12 minutes he sat.
Anthony Davis was 5-of-16 and missed both his shots from three. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was 1-of-7 from three. As a team, the Lakers shot 26.9% from three and had an offensive rating of 97.8 — they scored less than a point per possession.
While the Lakers played without urgency and couldn’t just flip the switch as they have in the past, give the Suns credit — they were not intimidated, didn’t play like a team full of playoff newbies, and didn’t back down.
Phoenix came out and hit first, with a 15-2 run midway through the first quarter to take a lead. More than the offense, it was a smart defense that swarmed the ball when LeBron had it, then scrambled out and rotating fast to challenge shots and force turnovers.
Phoenix led 53-45 at the half. Booker had 17 points in the first half, getting his buckets off pin downs and using the pick-and-roll.
Deandre Ayton was outplaying Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell, putting up 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the first half, forcing Fran Vogel to go with heavy Davis at the five minutes early (something he will need to do all series).
That didn’t matter, Ayton outplayed Davis, too. Ayton finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds.
The game included an ejection in the third quarter. Alex Caruso and Cameron Payne had been going at it for a couple of possessions. When LeBron took a free throw, Paul stepped in to box him out, hooked LeBron’s arm and fouled him. Payne and Caruso came together on the side of the court away from the foul, a frustrated Payne threw the ball at Caruso’s feet, and Harrell then rushed in as the third man in and grabbed Payne. The referees called a common foul on CP3, gave Harrell and Caruso technicals, and ejected Payne.
It ended up being much ado about nothing; it didn’t change the complexion of the game.
A game where the Suns should feel very good.
Just don’t count the Lakers out.
How often NBA teams have won a best-of-seven series after losing Game 1:
All teams: 24%
LeBron's teams: 60%
— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) May 23, 2021
That said, if the Lakers don’t bounce back in Game 2 with a much better performance, things will feel very different.