NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns are on the cusp of an ‘upset,’ but no one should be surprised

The Phoenix Suns’ job isn’t done in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, but no one should be surprised if they pull off the “upset.”

The Phoenix Suns may be the 2-seed in their first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, but very few people had the guts to pick them in a seven-game series against the defending NBA champions.

They didn’t have the playoff experience. They didn’t have LeBron James or Anthony Davis. They were a very good regular-season team, but they probably weren’t built for the postseason. The fact that they were the first underdog 2-seed in the NBA Playoffs in over 30 years spoke to that fact. Every series prediction felt like a pat on the back for a “fun team” that “had a great year,” but not many experts took them seriously compared to the basketball and narrative juggernaut that is the Lakers.

The job is still not done, and those who haven’t been paying attention will point to Anthony Davis’ absence as the reason why we’ve arrived at this point. But the Suns are now on the cusp of pulling off an “upset,” and exactly no one should be surprised by it.

On Tuesday night, the Suns obliterated Los Angeles in a 115-85 rout. In just three quarters, Devin Booker dropped 30 points for the third time in this series, including a franchise playoff-record 18 points in the first quarter.

“It was just exciting for us to see Book be Book,” Chris Paul said. “Tonight is what we’ve seen from him all season long and he was taking the shots that we want him to shoot. Even in the previous four games, I’d been on him, ‘Shoot more.’ There’s really not a bad shot that he can take, and he just made the right plays.”

Booker hadn’t shot the ball well since Game 1 but finished 13-for-23 on Tuesday and feasted on a Lakers defense that didn’t have Davis patrolling the paint. When Phoenix needed him to bounce back, he responded.

“That’s what I play the game for, for these type of atmospheres and these type of games,” Booker said. “This is my first experience in the playoffs, and just the mentality of the next game is the most important one of my career is a fun thing for me to play with.”

It wasn’t just Book fueling what became a 30-point blowout, however. The Suns’ defense was smothering once again, limiting the Lakers to just 2 points over an eight-minute span between the first and second quarters where the home team went on a 24-2 run to blow the game wide open.

In the process, Phoenix limited LeBron James to 7 first-half points and built a 30-point halftime lead — the largest in franchise postseason history.

“I think our whole team defense helped our offense,” head coach Monty Williams said. “To be able to get stops and the way we played as far as force, executing the game plan allowed for our offense to play in flow. We didn’t call a ton of plays, if any, in the first quarter. We were able to just get out and run and Book was hitting shots, and when he’s got it going from every level, he can be hard to stop.”

Between Booker’s first-quarter barrage, the defense locking down, Cam Payne slicing and dicing the Lakers’ No. 1 defense, and the Suns’ shooters stepping up early, Game 5 was over by halftime. It was complete domination in front of a packed PHX Arena, pushing the defending champs to the brink and sending a very clear message.

“I mean, we’re all locked in right now,” Jae Crowder said. “If you ain’t locked in right now, you stick out like a sore thumb. Everybody’s locked in, mentally, physically.”

It’s time to stop sleeping on the Phoenix Suns

On the one hand, the Suns did what they needed to do during this lopsided result: They won at home, where teams are expected to win in the playoffs, against a Los Angeles team playing without Anthony Davis, who also missed the second half of Game 4 due to his groin strain. There’s no question AD’s absence robs the Lakers of a crucial two-way presence in this series; he clogs up the lane with his long arms and impressive instincts on the defensive end, while also presenting acute matchup problems for the Suns’ smaller frontcourt on offense.

But the equation here isn’t as simple as “Lakers minus Davis equals Suns win.” That would ignore the larger context, like how Phoenix held a halftime lead over LA in Game 4 before Davis got hurt, or how Chris Paul was a shell of himself from the second quarter of Game 1 until the second quarter of Game 4 due to his own injury, or how the Suns have generally been overlooked in the title contender conversation altogether.

In other words, as much as Davis being sidelined clearly made the Suns’ job easier in Game 5, injuries to each team’s best or second-best player have plagued both sides, and when these two teams have been fully healthy in this series, Phoenix has looked just as good if not better than the defending champs.

Heading into a closeout game on the road, there’s still work to do. The LeBron James haymaker that many were expected on Tuesday could still be coming in Game 6, especially for a guy who’s 14-0 all-time in first-round series. Maybe the Lakers’ shooters will randomly catch fire, despite all the evidence from the regular season and these first five playoff games pointing to the contrary. Maybe Davis will be good enough to go and actually be effective. The Lakers could win Game 6, and in a Game 7 — even in Phoenix — it’s hard to pick against a LeBron-led team. The series is not over by any means, and it wouldn’t be shocking if LA found a way to flip the script.

But it should be just as unsurprising if the Suns take care of business and send the Lakers packing in the first round, and if that happens, it won’t just be because LA was banged up. Phoenix deserves more credit than simply being a good team that caught the Lakers at the opportune moment, which is the narrative that’s already being spun.

This Lakers squad doesn’t look up to the task, but James’ 22.8 points per game — the second-lowest scoring average of any playoff series in his Hall-of-Fame career — aren’t just a byproduct of the ankle injuries; Phoenix has done a legitimately solid job on him between Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig. LeBron holds the highest scoring average in NBA history in potential elimination games, so the Suns still have their work cut out for them in Game 6, but with Davis battling through an injury that’s easy to re-aggravate and the Suns’ defensive strategy actively calling out LA’s poor shooting, it’ll take a 2013 Game 6 LeBron kind of performance to prevent the “upset” here.

The Suns have their own injury contingency to deal with, of course, after Chris Paul re-aggravated his shoulder injury trying to box out Wesley Matthews on Tuesday.

“I don’t want to give an official update on him until I get more information, I don’t have anything right now,” Williams said. “But when I talked to him when he came back out, he said he still had his strength. He seems to be okay, but we wanna wait until tomorrow after he wakes up, and then our medical team can make an assessment.”

Paul described his shoulder as “a little banged up” but said he’s all right before expanding on his recovery process heading into Thursday’s game.

“I’ve been doing treatment all day every day, just trying to do whatever I can to get out there and help us,” he said. “The biggest thing right now is Game 6. If we can get Game 6, that’d be huge, because rest — I could use it.”

Paul was honest about the benefit of having extra time to recuperate if the Suns manage to close out the series in LA, but they certainly aren’t overlooking anyone, and especially not this Lakers team. Williams, Paul and Jae Crowder were all on the same page when asked about their message to Phoenix’s younger guys heading into a potential elimination game on the road.

“Just wrap our heads around it’s gonna be the hardest game of the series,” Crowder said. “Obviously we’re on the road so we’ve gotta stay together, especially when they go on a run and the crowd gets into it. We’ve just gotta stay together and weather the storm a little bit together, collectively, to come out on top.”

Williams said the Suns will not only draw on the experiences of Paul and Crowder, but also his own and assistant coach Willie Green’s as former players themselves.

“We understand who we’re playing against,” Williams said. “They’re the defending champs, we’re going back to their place. We gotta be solid when we go back there. Closeout games are really hard, so our guys understand that.

“Whether it’s a closeout game or Game 1, our job is to go out and play with the force and the defense and share the ball and not think about anything else but the next right thing. And you can’t get to the closeout game or the closeout moment until you take care of the first things first, and for us, that’s just getting ready tomorrow, when we’ll start preparations for the next game.”

“Doing the next right thing” and “can’t get happy on the farm” are well-known Monty-isms that have become embedded in the Suns’ new culture. So it’s no surprise to hear Booker, one of the team’s youngest cornerstones, acknowledge the task at hand.

“Every game is a new experience and I think every game has its own characteristics in different ways, so every game is a new goal to accomplish,” he said. “You have to have a short memory and move on to the next one. And that’s what we’ve done, and that’s how we’ve been able to get two in a row, but we know Game 6 isn’t gonna be easy. We know it’s gonna be tough there in LA, but we’re ready for it.”

It takes a mix of talent, depth, lunch-pail mentality, self-awareness and respect for your opponent to knock off a LeBron-led team. The Suns have that winning combination, and although there’s still work to be done, no one should be surprised if the Lakers wind up becoming the sixth team in NBA history to follow up a championship with a first-round exit.

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