No one would have blamed the Phoenix Suns if they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night.
Through two-and-a-half quarters, they were the better team in a game that had playoff-like quality of play. Their star Devin Booker was cooking, vibing to the rhythm of the opposing defense and punishing it time after time down the court.
Then, Booker was abruptly ejected with the Suns up seven in a game they had mostly controlled. Even with the defending champs shorthanded, that type of momentum swing and loss for Phoenix on the court was surely going to be a devastating hit.
But, the Suns didn’t blink.
They kept chugging, moving the ball crisply on offense and playing arguably their best team defense of the year. It was constant pressure on the flow of the game, with the Suns imposing their style of play on the Lakers.
Los Angeles couldn’t catch a breath, and the Suns got their most earned win of the season, a 114-104 final.
Head coach Monty Williams painted it as “a big-time character win,” and here’s the stinger: Chris Paul only scored eight points and Deandre Ayton didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.
It was a team victory in a physical grind of a game. The Suns attempted 25 free throws, with seven Phoenix players getting to the line, while the 30 team assists was contributed to by all 10 rotation players.
Booker and Paul dominated the first half. A Lakers team without two starters (Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis) and a key rotation piece (Kyle Kuzma) decided it was going to try and take the All-Star backcourt’s scoring out of the equation.
That was unwise.
Booker has been playing against that type of “junk defense” for years, a trap far beyond the three-point line that forces Booker to make the right pass. He’s had that down for quite a while and Suns shooters were ready to knock down open looks. From the jump, with Ayton’s rolls and those two attacking the basket, the Lakers were completely fine helping off Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder.
Those two responded by combining for 34 points and seven three-pointers. The Suns as a team overall made 16 on the night.
Watch how Booker cruises through to fire a laser right into Bridges’ shooting pocket at the close of the first half:
The Suns were up seven at the half, and while the Lakers showed their elite form by consistently hanging around, they were never truly threatening.
Before Booker was tossed, he had 17 points, three rebounds, six assists and three steals in 24 minutes.
Yes, three steals, which takes us to the Suns’ tremendous help defense throughout the night.
Crowder, who is often critical after games on the details like help defense, nodded along when praise was delivered to the team’s performance in that area.
There were over a dozen possessions like this one below, where Cam Johnson is helping contain two different drives as the rim protector before making the key play on the ball.
Check out Booker here stepping in!
After Booker’s exit, an awful decision by the referees, that defense didn’t let up. Wing Abdel Nader had a terrific second half. He had three blocks to go along with eight points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal.
Here was Nader’s first from earlier in the game, another moment of secondary rim protection:
“I thought ‘Dooly’ was huge for us,” Williams said of Nader, going on to say he saw “a ton of multiple efforts” defensively that the Suns pride themselves on in being a great defensive team.
“Just connectivity,” Crowder said of what clicked defensively. “All five guys on the court being on the same page. We had a couple of breakdowns here and there but that’s gonna happen throughout the game. We just tried to limit those letdowns as much as possible. I felt like we all knew the gameplan very well. There was no confusion with that and we just connected. Connected on both ends of the court.
“All five guys on defense helping each other and scrambling, playing with a motor, and I honestly feel like it was one of our best games of the year.”
That defense held the Lakers at 30 points in the third quarter, keeping at bay a usual second-half onslaught Los Angeles is prone to dishing out.
When the fourth quarter started with the Suns up three, that’s where Dario Saric and Paul took over.
Saric scored four straight to begin the fourth quarter and then Paul knocked down a three-pointer from Saric. After a 3 by Nader, Saric set up Bridges for a trey-ball and Phoenix was suddenly leading by 10 with 9:20 to go.
Paul and Saric have quickly proven to be a perfect match on the basketball court and have found instant chemistry.
The Suns have lots of success when Paul checks in for his second shift of each half, typically with the reserves. In 123 minutes together, that duo is a ridiculous plus-75, good for a 25.3 net rating.
“Both of those guys are pretty smart players,” Williams said. “You put them in a certain environment and you let those guys make plays for themselves or other players. They’re just smart players.”
When Paul was asked about Saric following a win in mid-February, he lit up.
“Dario is one of the best guys to play with … he’s just so cerebral, makes the right plays, and (is a) great teammate, man,” he said.
“It’s really easy,” Saric added after the game Tuesday on playing with Paul. “He’s a guy who is always trying to find (you).”
For the next four minutes following that Bridges 3, both teams would combine to score just six times. Very playoff-y, if you ask me.
That had the Suns with an 11-point edge at the 5:03 mark, and even after a late flurry of deep balls via LeBron James, the Lakers didn’t have enough to mount a comeback.
Saric played the whole fourth and finished with a team-high 21 points. Bridges added 19, Crowder 17 and Deandre Ayton was solid with 15 of his own.
James had a ho-hum 38 points on 16-of-24 shooting, with five rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block. He was the best player on the floor, as usual, but just didn’t have enough help to beat a full and complete effort from the Suns.
Read those last two sentences back.
It’s a testament to where the Suns are at. Which, by the way, is a 23-11 record, the second-best in the entire league.
The fact that they were able to maintain that on the road after the absurdity that was Booker’s ejection speaks to not only growth, but stability.
“We rallied together,” Bridges said of the mentality after Booker got tossed. “We wasn’t worried, we wasn’t nervous. We knew what we had to do.”