Anthony Davis was a game time decision but lasted just over five minutes and from then on this was all about the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, who torched the reigning champion Lakers in the opening period and kept them at arm’s length the rest of the way.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. As soon as Davis limped to the locker room it felt as though LeBron James’ title chances vanished into air then and there.
Booker, to this credit, showed no mercy, drilling six three-pointers in the first quarter on the way to a 36-14 Phoenix Suns lead. From that point on, it never really got close, despite the continued Herculean efforts of James and head coach Frank Vogel belatedly switching to small ball in the second half.
Devin Booker (22 PTS, 8-9 FGM) ties the postseason record for threes made in a quarter with 6 treys in the 1st! #NBAPlayoffs on TNT pic.twitter.com/gzKg3zagBp
The Suns’ biggest lead was 29 and the Lakers never even got a sniff. By the end, watching LeBron watch his own team-mates haplessly flail around him felt like some kind of Shakespearean tragicomedy, such were the mindless performances by Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris and Dennis Schroder.
That isn’t to blame them. Those guys are who they are. But after each ill-advised brick it felt as though a little bit of James’ spirit left his body. Or maybe that was because Devin Booker had decided he couldn’t miss at the other end, shooting a staggering 15-22 from the field and 8-10 from three.
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By comparison, Booker was ably supported by the savvy veteran point guard Chris Paul, the dominant young center Deandre Ayton and above all the perpetual nuisance that is Jae Crowder, who was constantly barking away at James, wrestling him out of position in the post and hitting momentum-shifting three-pointers when required. This was by far his best game of the playoffs.
Throughout this series the Lakers have been underequipped to deal with Monty Williams’ team, who have consistently outfought and outthought their more glamorous opponents. Despite the often heralded depth of this Los Angeles roster, Vogel had no answer to a team that knew its identity inside out from Game 1. Maybe that’s the point. With James and Davis out with injuries for so much of the regular season, it always seemed as though the Lakers were trying to figure it out on the fly.
Against an opposition this good, it was never going to work.
Los Angeles Lakers
Gasol was brought into the starting lineup but played less than 18 minutes and attempted only one field goal. Drummond was dropped from the rotation altogether such was his ineffectiveness against Ayton. Davis lasted five minutes until his groin gave way.
All this meant that Vogel’s hand was forced and James became an impromptu small ball center. Suddenly there was life. He defiantly bullied his way to the rim. Talen Horton-Tucker provided some much-needed scoring off the bench. The mammoth 23-point half-time lead was slowly whittled down to 12 in the third quarter.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Paul re-entered off the bench to use every last ounce of his hard-earned playoff experience to slow the pace down, find his team wide-open looks and ensure the door would remain firmly shut in their faces.
Booker was relentless on his way to a blistering 47 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, as pure a scorer as this league is likely to see. Remember that this is his very first playoff series. Never has a debutant appeared to belong in the postseason more.
The Lakers got as close as 10 with eight minutes to go in the fourth and perhaps sensing the most miraculous of comebacks, James asked for a few minutes rest on the bench. His team did not score again for two minutes and suddenly the lead was back up to 17.
LeBron James has been eliminated from the NBA playoffs in the first round for the very first time in his career. pic.twitter.com/Uoz5x3mnOu
It was an ill-fitting way for LeBron to be eliminated from the first round in the playoffs for the first time in his career, without Davis and while carrying a lingering ankle problem himself. But then again, James will feel no shame in being knocked out by this Suns team; his old friend and a relatively new one, too. This is a worthy second seed with genuine title chances.
Continue to be great… pic.twitter.com/NIPCrDVSao
For Paul, Booker and company this will be the last time they enter a series as underdogs until the Finals. They have bounced the reigning champions. Phoenix will now, quite rightly, be picturing themselves in their place.
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