What you saw in the fourth quarter of Game 2 in this first-round series explained why the Los Angeles Lakers are back to feeling bubble-licious and the Phoenix Suns are feeling shook after L.A.’s 109-102 win evened this first-round series.
One team had a pair of proven stars who shot well enough to earn some postgame ice for their shoulders, while the other team couldn’t lean on the achy shoulder of its most important player.
When’s the last time anyone witnessed LeBron James and Anthony Davis looking this in-sync for the Lakers down the stretch in a big spot? Oh, yes: Back in the hermetically-sealed pandemic-proof Orlando restart last fall where they tag-teamed their way to a championship. Well, they delivered a flashback for old-time’s sake, burying the Suns on jumpers that finally allowed the Lakers to distance themselves in an entertaining and tight game in which they sorta needed to win.
“Those are two of the top five players in the NBA,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have a formula where those guys carry a big load, especially at crunch time.”
Noticeably absent for the Suns in the closing quarter was their composed and wise leader, Chris Paul, whose presence and production would normally spell security for this young Phoenix team. The shoulder he injured in Game 1 is officially A Big Deal because it spilled over into a second game, prevented Paul from doing anything special and Phoenix from applying a push to a Lakers’ team that for a moment was on the ropes Tuesday.
Paul took only five shots and seemed timid and careful in his 23 minutes of playing time. There was a second-half stretch where he sat for almost eight minutes — unheard of for someone of his impact and a game of this magnitude. Late in the game, he wasn’t even on the floor, subbing out with seven minutes left. Without him, the inexperienced Suns couldn’t handle the smoke.
Cameron Payne was surprisingly solid most of the game as a replacement for Paul, but his 15 minutes of fame didn’t extend deep into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, although he finished with 31 points, Devin Booker turned to vapor, failing to get a bucket in the quarter and was a non-factor.
Still, this was about the Lakers getting a triumphant return from their superstars and then flying back to Los Angeles on a team plane fueled by a sigh of relief.
Davis, in particular, needed a bounce-back performance after looking timid and helpless in scoring just 13 points as he never really hurt the Suns in Game 1. He couldn’t fully explained why he wasn’t ready to play, but he held himself accountable and vowed to atone for that.
As if on cue, Davis was forceful from the start. He was demanding the ball, drawing enough contact to take 21 free throws, and looking very much like the player who snarled his way to a title in Orlando. He finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks to stun the Suns at both rims.
There was a late fourth -quarter moment, when the score was tight, when Davis blocked a pair of shots and drilled a 3-pointer to tilt the game in L.A.’s favor. The Suns never had a whiff of the lead again.
Meanwhile, LeBron (23 points) worked in perfect harmony with Davis. It was an encouraging sign for the Lakers because LeBron missed 26 of the last 30 regular season games with an ankle sprain and since then has settled mainly for jumpers instead of exploding to the rim.
After a timely bucket with a minute left that put Phoenix to sleep, LeBron slapped his bicep. Yes, finally, the Lakers had reason to flex, maybe for the first time in a season that lacked consistency and two injured stars since the midway break and became starved for a show of strength Davis said he and LeBron are just getting warmed up.
“We’re getting better each game,” Davis said. “The more we step on the floor together, the better we’ll get.”
Teams holding the seventh seed rarely if ever also hold a psychological advantage in the first round. With this series tied 1-1, maybe the Lakers break that barrier. After all, they’re not your typical No. 7 seed — everyone suspected this, especially the Suns, and now there’s evidence.
Too bad for Phoenix. Not only did the Suns, after a tremendous season to capture the No. 2 seed, draw the Lakers, they may not have Paul at 100%.
On Tuesday, he had nothing. After leading the NBA in clutch-time scoring last season (and finishing sixth in it this season), Paul was poised to have the ball and the fortunes of Phoenix in those same trusty hands in these playoffs. His recovery powers are suddenly the topic of the series. If he can’t play pain-free and with a full range of motion, how can he realistically lead a band of teammates who are still looking to earn postseason stripes?
The Lakers know what it’s like to hope aboard big and healthy shoulders. James and Davis were up to the task of carrying their team Tuesday and this series is now going to L.A. for Games 3 and 4 — literally and if this keeps up, maybe figuratively, too.
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