Despite their lack of playoff experience, the Phoenix Suns didn’t look afraid of the moment in their postseason debuts.
It’s the first thing Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams mentioned in his pregame press conference as his team prepared for Game 1 of its first-round series on Sunday. “Poise” is what his team had been talking about all season. It’s what they focused on heading into the organization’s first postseason appearance in 11 years.
And it’s what they needed in a Game 1 that was a thrilling roller coaster ride against the defending NBA champions.
“All the stuff that’s been talked about with experience, I look at our guys last year when we went to the bubble,” Williams said. “Nobody thought we’d fare well there and they showed that they can handle the moment, and I expect them to do the same here. We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the stuff that everybody else is talking about, we’ve been talking about the things that we can control that are gonna help us get a win.”
More than any top seed in either conference, the Suns were the trendy “upset alert” pick of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. It makes sense: Four of their top seven rotation players had never seen playoff action before, the franchise hadn’t been to the postseason in more than 4,000 days, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers — finally getting healthy — awaited in the first round.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on any team, so it’s no wonder the Suns were the first 2-seed to not be favored in their first-round matchup against a 7-seed in over 30 years.
But if Game 1 was any indication, this young Phoenix team looked unafraid of the moment. If anything, the cornerstones of the future looked entirely ready for it.
“These are the moments that we’ve been waiting on,” Devin Booker said after the 99-90 win. “Coach Monty always preaches ‘when preparation meets opportunity,’ and it’s that time right now.”
Booker looked like a guy who had been preparing for this moment his entire life, because, well, he has been. The 24-year-old guard put up a game-high 34 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds in a whopping 45 minutes, shooting 13-for-26 from the floor and 3-for-7 from long range. The Suns were a plus-9 when he was on the floor and dead-even for the three minutes he sat.
“I was ready for it,” he said. “Very excited for it — from this whole week of building it up and these whole past 6 years of getting ready for this moment.”
Booker’s tone-setting performance wasn’t surprising given what he’s shown in late-game situations throughout his young career, not to mention how he was one of the two best players in the NBA bubble last year in Orlando. He wasn’t alone, however, since Deandre Ayton similarly rose to the occasion with an impressive outing in his postseason debut.
Finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds on 10-of-11 shooting, Ayton was truly dominant in his role. He took care of the glass, provided second-chance opportunities with 8 offensive boards and thoroughly outplayed both Andre Drummond (12 points, 9 rebounds, 5-of-7 shooting) and Anthony Davis (13 points, 7 rebounds, 5-of-16 shooting).
“To play in his first playoff game and have that kind of production on the offensive end, have 16 rebounds — I thought DA was pretty sound as far as not going for pump fakes and having his stick hand up,” Williams said. “Anthony [Davis] missed some shots, but I thought DA did a really good job of just trying to stay in front of him. He’s an all-world player, so DA’s gonna have to be even better in Game 2.”
Monty’s right: Davis won’t play that poorly all series, and once Frank Vogel mercifully makes the switch from Drummond at center, Los Angeles will make things interesting. But Ayton’s initial playoff outing proved what he’s shown flashes of all season: When this 22-year-old has an assignment and is fully locked in, he raises the Suns’ playoff ceiling considerably.
This was particularly comforting for a sold-out Suns arena with nearly 12,000 fans in attendance, not only because it was against the Lakers or because it had been so long since their last playoff appearance, but also because Game 1 featured a fair amount of adversity.
The first incident came in the form of Chris Paul’s right shoulder contusion, which happened early in the second quarter right as the Suns had built up all the momentum with a 38-29 lead. The entire Phoenix bench cleared to stand around him while he lied on the ground in pain, and when he slowly walked off the court with a towel over his head, it felt like all the energy had been zapped from the building.
But Devin Booker and the Suns did was good teams do: They answered the call, even after the Lakers had capitalized on that bit of misfortune with a 6-0 run.
“That’s how we’ve been all season long: We’ve been a complete team,” Paul said of Phoenix’s performance without him. “So I wasn’t worried. This game is representative of how we’ve been all season long, next-man up. We just play together.”
The Lakers had pulled within three points at that point, but after a Booker mid-range jumper, a monster dunk in transition from Booker and a tip-in from Ayton, the Suns had pulled back ahead by nine.
“The team responded,” Booker said. “We huddled up, and Chris has been a leader for us throughout this whole season. A lot of us rely on him at every point of the game, so to see him down like that in pain, it’s obviously tough. But we know he’s a fighter, and we have a team full of fighters.”
After spending a few minutes in the locker room, and with the Suns slowly turning momentum back in their favor, Paul flipped the switch all the way back on for the home crowd, walking out of the tunnel and receiving a standing ovation. His right arm looked dead for the rest of the game, but that jolt for his team (and the crowd) helped this group maintain its composure.
“Seeing C go down and him get back up, it just shows what type of time it is and the type of environment we’re in,” Ayton said. “We have to be ready, there’s gonna be plays like this. It’s all about being together and knowing the task at hand.”
It wasn’t just the emotion of losing CP3 and then witnessing his Willis Reed Lite return, however. At halftime, the Lakers held a 17-0 advantage in free throw attempts — not entirely indicative of the “Lakers get all the calls!” conspiracy cries that echoed on Suns Twitter, especially for a Phoenix team that ranked 29th in free-throw rate all season, but certainly not very well-balanced numbers either.
Early in the fourth quarter, as the Lakers were trying to make a run with a number of foul calls going their way and frustration starting to set in, Alex Caruso got under Cameron Payne’s skin by vying for a couple of charges near mid-court. Chris Paul’s box-out on LeBron James sent the Lakers star careening to the floor, and his rolling around on the ground only heightened tensions. But it was at that moment the two guards actually got into it, with Payne chucking the ball at Caruso’s feet. Montrezl Harrell came storming in and knocked Payne to the ground.
In the ensuing chaos, the Lakers and Suns had to be separated. After reviewing the play, Payne was issued two technical fouls and ejected. Harrell, somehow, was allowed to stay in the game as he and Caruso got one technical apiece.
The crowd was incensed. So were the Suns. Playoff basketball was peaking, and this team had never faced playoff adversity like this before.
Yet again, they responded. Paul and Booker scored the next four points, pushing Phoenix’s lead to 13, and the Lakers never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
“We’ve been talking about this as I’ve said for a long time, so this is one of many moments as we journey through these playoffs that we have to handle well,” Williams said. “And I thought our guys deserve the credit for not only being prepared for it, but executing out of that stoppage of play well.”
As exhilarating as it was for the Suns to get a playoff-opening win against the defending champs and prove they won’t be some easy upset, nobody in that locker room is content just yet. LeBron James has lost plenty of Game 1s before and still managed to win the series. Paul said he will “absolutely” be ready to go for Game 2, but it’s anyone’s guess how effective he’ll be. The Suns are in no position to get complacent, and Monty made sure to emphasize that after the win.
“We just talked about our guys having poise after the game,” Williams said. “It’s one game, you’re playing against the defending champs. It’s a situation where you’re grateful for the win, but you have to come in tomorrow with a heightened sense of awareness and respect for who you’re playing against, have an appropriate fear for two of the greatest players who’ve ever played the game, and come in with even more poise and energy and focus as we go forward.”
That message certainly wasn’t lost on Booker, the young star who’s been waiting for this moment for years and made the most of it when it arrived. It’d be easy to feel satisfied with an impressive Game 1 win after finally getting to this stage, but that’s not his — or the Suns’ — mentality.
“I don’t think you can make statements vs. a team like this, the defending champs,” Booker said. “They’ve been down this road before, but we just have to worry about ourselves, honestly, and just come in ready to play for a full 48 minutes.”