The Phoenix Suns dethroned the reigning NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers with a 113-100 win in Game 6 of their first round playoff match-up at the Staples Center. After trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven encounter, the Suns rallied back with three straight wins led by the 24-year-old Devin Booker.
Even while sharing the court with three first ballot Hall of Famers – the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis plus his teammate Chris Paul – Booker was the brightest star in his debut postseason series. In the sixth and final game, he dazzled the Los Angeles crowd with his best showing of the season, finishing with 47 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists. He closed with averages of 29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists in six games against the Lakers–all improvements from his regular season numbers.
Los Angeles had no answer for Booker, who scored 30 or more points in four out of the six matches. James led the Lakers with 23.3 points per game against the Suns, but it was not enough for them to keep up with the Suns in the absence of a healthy Davis together with their inconsistent supporting cast.
The Lakers were befuddled by Booker’s craftiness on offense and it was only amplified by the resurgence of Chris Paul in Game 4. The nine-time All-NBA Team awardee suffered a shoulder injury in the Suns’ Game 1 victory and was noticeably hampered by it in the next two outings.
Paul came out in the decisive fourth game determined to avoid falling behind 3-1 and instead tied the count at 2-2 after coming up with 18 points and nine assists. He was steady in Game 5 then in Game 6, Paul made just four of his 12 shot attempts, but continuously broke down the Lakers’ half court defense which led to 12 assists.
The 11-time All-Star dictated the pace of the game and allowed the Suns to build a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter that they would not relinquish. Paul then stabilized the Suns late in the game, thwarting the Lakers’ final comeback in the fourth quarter, before calling it a night.
Without taking away anything from the brilliance of Booker and Paul, the inability of the Lakers’ guards to keep up with them only exacerbated matters. Even before missing Game 4 with a knee injury, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was unable to contain Booker while he also struggled with his shot before finally cracking double digits in Game 6.
Reserves Wesley Matthews and Alex Caruso did not have much success covering Phoenix’s backcourt either. The Lakers’ defense even allowed journeyman guard and Suns reserve Cam Payne to score 16 points per game after averaging just 8.4 in the regular season. Payne even outplayed Los Angeles’ starting point guard Dennis Schroder over the course of the series.
Schroder, who turned down a four-year extension worth $84 million before the playoffs, actually started out strong, averaging 19.3 points over the first three games, but he then followed it up with an eight point outing then a zero point dud in Games 4 and 5, respectively. He bounced back with 20 points in Game 6, but shot just 42.9% from the field and it was not enough to redeem himself.
The eighth-year guard was expected to pick up the scoring cudgels for the Lakers, especially sans Davis, but he failed to live up to the moment. It will be difficult for Schroder this coming offseason to receive a similar contract offer to the one he just turned down and his future in Los Angeles is now uncertain.
The shortcomings of the Laker guards to cover their counterparts on the Suns was further aggravated by their poor interior defense. Last season’s championship winning roster featured the intimidating center tandem of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee who protected the rim with impunity–covering for the mistakes of the perimeter defenders–while also being mobile enough to switch onto guards.
With both gone from the Lakers’ roster, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell joined the team this season to much fanfare, but they could not find their roles. Each of the Lakers’ three centers were completely benched in at least one game in the series against the Suns and were generally ineffective when given the opportunity to play.
The trio could not get going on offense and were feasted on by the Suns’ third-year center DeAndre Ayton. Also playing in his first playoffs, Ayton was the Suns’ second-leading scorer with 15.8 points against the Lakers on almost 80% shooting from the field. He also collected 10.7 rebounds per game and cemented his status as one of the NBA’s most promising young big men.
Los Angeles’ head coach Frank Vogel had no answers on the inside and even experimented with James and Kyle Kuzma playing small-ball center, but none of them could fill the void left by the injured Davis.
The ability of Davis to move up and play center during key stretches has been crucial for the Lakers since last season and his presence was sorely missed against the Suns. Davis scored 34 points in their two wins before straining his groin in the first half of Game 4. The injury turned the tide as it coincided with the improvement of Paul’s troubled shoulder which stacked the odds against the Lakers.
Still just 28-years-old, Davis has been injury prone since being picked #1 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. The short offseason preceding this campaign did not do him any favors, but the silver lining of the Lakers’ early exit from the playoffs is the lengthy recovery time that it will afford Davis.
The extended rest will only help Davis and the 36-year-old James come back stronger next season, but LA’s Vice President for Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka will have his hands full with rebuilding the supporting cast around his two stars over the summer. One bright spot is second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker, who was used sparingly once again in the postseason, but showed promise this year when given playing time.
For this young Suns team, this series has been the ultimate confidence booster and it will only help accelerate the development of their young core. Their second round against the Denver Nuggets promises to be an exciting affair between two up-and-coming teams who have nowhere to go but up. Phoenix’s roster might be young, but they proved in this series that they aren’t just happy to be here in the playoffs and that they are serious championship contenders this year.