LOS ANGELES — For the first 24 minutes Thursday, the Suns did an impressive job executing the game plan that had worked for them all series: shrinking the floor, cutting off driving lanes, all while having Deandre Ayton lurking in the paint a shot blocker. For two-and-a-half games, the Lakers had limited success making the Suns pay by shooting over the top of that packed paint and knocking down 3-pointers.
LeBron James was a perfect example of the Lakers’ struggles: he took one shot at the rim and three from 3 in the first half of Game 3 Thursday. That gave him six shots in the restricted area and 19 3s through two-and-a-half games. LeBron’s sore ankle and the Suns defense had kept him from playing downhill and getting to the rim.
That changed in the third quarter, and so did the series.
LeBron attacked the paint on the first three possessions of the second half, scoring on two and setting a trend.
“LeBron was in the paint it seemed like the whole third quarter,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
“He set the tone in the third quarter,” Anthony Davis said of LeBron. “He’s feeling good. He told me he still has another gear.”
The Lakers had a 33-point third quarter and behind that pulled away for a double-digit lead, then held on against a Suns rally late to earn a 109-95 win. It was the first Lakers’ playoff win in Staples Center since 2013.
The Lakers now hold a 2-1 series lead, with Game 4 Sunday in Los Angeles.
Davis led the Lakers with 34 points and 11 rebounds. LeBron added 21 points and nine assists, and Dennis Schroder had 20 points. By the fourth quarter, LeBron was clearly having fun again and was playing with his food in the form of Jae Crowder.
Any shot the Suns had at holding off the Lakers or making a comeback was cut short by Chris Paul again being limited by the shoulder stinger he suffered in Game 1. Paul was moving a lot better early in the game but also clearly could only lift his arm chest high at points.
“I thought he was laboring a little bit, and then he fell…” Williams said. “He looked like he was holding it like he was the other night.”
After that, Williams had his All-Star point guard on the bench next to him for the final 9:34 of the game. Paul finished with 7 points on 3-of-8 shooting. Cameron Payne came in and gave the Suns some spark with 15 points and hitting three 3s, but it wasn’t near enough.
Los Angeles was far more physical than Phoenix in the second half, and no Sun besides Deandre Ayton was to match it — with that Suns players grew frustrated. Devin Booker got ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul in the final minute of the game for shoving Schroder while he was in the air.
“That wasn’t a basketball play,” Schroder said after the game. “In the regular season, that’s probably a suspension as well.”
Most of the time when LeBron or Schroder drove and the help rotation came, the Lakers made a pocket pass to Davis or Andre Drummond coming out of the dunker’s spot for an easy bucket.
In what had been a good defensive series, LeBron led the Lakers to another gear and a 66 point second half. It’s now up to the Suns to match that and find another offensive gear (Jae Crowder and the rest of the Phoenix role players need to shoot better). If not, they could be heading back to the Valley of the Sun next week in a deep, deep hole.