by Cody Cunningham

Headline

LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT
The young Suns proved themselves under the bright lights, stepping up & executing in their playoff debuts

Phoenix Suns Arena was completely dark outside of an orange and purple glow from the LED screens and a solo spotlight fixated on the Suns’ bench. 

PA announcer Vince Marotta’s voice boomed through the arena as, one by one, he introduced Phoenix’s starting lineup. As Marotta called each name, the crowd grew louder as players rose from the Suns bench with their arms stretched out to high-five their teammates while jogging from one side of the court to the other.

Fans saved the loudest ovation for last. 

“A 6-5 guard from Kentucky, number one, Devin Booker.”

But unlike most starters’ traditional burst of hyped energy, Booker took a much more serious approach for his first playoff game. He slowly walked through his teammates, graciously shaking each one of their hands and presenting a focused demeanor among the crowd’s uproar.

The lack of playoff experience for the young Suns such as Booker was a key talking point leading up to their first-round matchup against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers. Less than two hours before tip-off, coach Monty Williams said playing with poise would be his team’s biggest priority in Game 1.

Those players’ consistent effort all season prepared them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.

“I think we've been showing growth all along. Just handling situations, handling the adversity that comes up in a game, handling the ups and downs of the game,” Cameron Johnson said. “The goals that we have are really, really big. We have a lot of faith in the work that we put in as a group.”

The gathering outside Phoenix Suns Arena began forming nearly an hour before doors opened. Those fans carried chants of “Rally the Valley” and “Beat LA” inside, echoing throughout the bowl and building the electricity for the playoff matchup between rivals.

Prior to the game, third-year wing Mikal Bridges said veteran Chris Paul emphasized the importance of never getting too high or too low throughout the game and staying locked in on the plan.

It was clear from the opening tip that the Suns wanted to be the aggressor. For a team that ran a slower pace than the majority of the league throughout the regular season, the Suns flipped the script by pushing the ball quickly, sprinting up and down the court and attacking early.

Paul found Booker in the corner, draining the 3-pointer for the Suns’ first points and his first-career playoff bucket. Deandre Ayton followed this up with his first-career-playoff score on an alley-oop from Jae Crowder.

Bridges and Johnson both joined in on the action, knocking down triples of their own in the first quarter, showing little signs of nerves.

Playoff basketball is what the 24-year-old Booker has been waiting six NBA seasons to experience. He noticed the difference in intensity and physicality compared to a regular-season game, but felt fully prepared for the task at hand.

“I've been watching the playoffs for a very long time (as) a student of it and dissecting it,” Booker said. “… I was ready for it. Very excited for it, from this whole week building up to it and these whole past six years of getting ready for this moment.”

And the two-time All-Star sure looked ready, scoring 34 points to set a franchise record in a playoff debut.

Through his nearly limitless offensive skillset, Booker seemed to be scoring at will through his mix of long-range 3-pointers, midrange pull ups, emphatic dunks and free-throw trips after embracing contact.

But his scoring was only part of his stellar performance.

One of Booker’s most impressive moments was through his playmaking ability. Relatively early in the first quarter, the Suns were pushing the pace as Paul launched a half-court heave, looking like a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary with two defenders draped over Booker. 

With one hand, Booker reached up and snagged the ball, but began falling backwards. Not wanting to risk a turnover, Booker caught sight of Bridges sprinting to the corner and flipped the ball his way before tumbling to the ground. All in one motion, Booker fed the perfect pass to Bridges, who drained the 3-pointer.

That was one of Booker’s eight assists on the night.

“Book has this reputation as a scorer, but he's an unbelievably good passer,” Williams said. “Not only did he pass well tonight, but he was doing a really good job of pulling the double team away from the paint and that opened up stuff for us on the backside. … He probably doesn't get enough credit for his willingness to pass, and the high level of passing that he displays on a night-in, night-out basis.”

Not only was Booker able to get his teammates involved, but he also found ways to give the crowd an added spark. Paul exited the game in the second quarter due to a shoulder injury, which the Lakers turned into a 6-0 run. The once-deafening roar of Suns fans had softened for the first time since they arrived earlier in the day.

Booker, who checked in for Paul, took it upon himself to refocus the energy. A midrange jumper added a slight boost. But Booker followed that up sprinting up the court on a fastbreak, blowing right through the Lakers’ defense before rising up and throwing down a highlight-reel slam to bring the crowd back on their feet.

“He was just great tonight. It was crazy,” Paul said. “Everybody been waiting to see him in a playoff game, and you got to see it.”

Booker scored 17 points in each half, including 10 straight from the end of the third into the fourth quarter. He shot 50 percent from the floor (13-of-26) to go along with seven rebounds and a steal. His 34 points in a Suns postseason debut surpassed Walter Davis’ 31 in 1978. 

None of this came as a surprise to Williams, who has witnessed the relentless effort and determination that Booker has put in behind the scenes to prepare for a game like this.

“He's worked on his game to be in this position,” Williams said. “He trusts the work. I've always said this about Devin, he's not afraid of the moment. He's not afraid of these games. He actually wants to be in these games. So, that's what I attribute it to: his ability to focus and play the same way, no matter the stage.”

Despite battling multi-time All-Stars Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and former Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell in the paint, Ayton showcased his hustle on the glass, his ability to play above the rim and his defensive prowess that has led to his nickname of “DominAyton.”

Booker noticed the look on Ayton’s face during pregame and could tell that the 22-year-old center was locked in for his playoff debut.

Midway through the first quarter, Ayton threw his hands up while diving to the corner defensively to disrupt Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s 3-pointer and force a miss. As Crowder grabbed the rebound, Ayton showed off his speed and athleticism, sprinting from one baseline to the other and beating all players down the court for the easy score.

Ayton recorded 10 points in the first quarter alone, before proceeding to notch a double-double with 21 points and 16 rebounds through a blend of alley-oops, pick-and-roll dives and crowd-raising slams. He went 10-of-11 from the floor, and his only miss resulted in an offensive rebound and putback. 

Ayton joined Jason Kidd and Armen Gilliam as the only Suns to record a double-double in their playoff debut. Those 16 rebounds were the most by a Sun in their first postseason appearance, and included eight on the offensive end.

"That’s the most intense game I’ve ever been in in my life,” Ayton said. “I was really just quiet the whole time, just trying to play hard. I was just really embracing everything that was going on.”

Ayton’s aggression on the glass and attacking mentality at the basket were replaced with a much more poised and disciplined approach on the defensive side. The Big Fella used his strength and size to anchor the Suns on that end of the floor, bodying up against the Lakers’ big men and moving quickly against opposing wings driving through the paint, including a block against LeBron James.

“I thought DA was pretty sound as far as not going for pump fakes and having a stick hand up,” Williams said. “Anthony missed some shots, but I thought DA did a really good job of just trying to stay in front of him.” 

A candidate for an All-Defensive team this season, Bridges was tasked with being the primary defender on the four-time MVP James. Not only did Bridges display his incredible wingspan and quick instincts, the 24-year-old showed constant effort throughout the entirety of the matchup. 

The Suns had been outrunning the Lakers throughout the first half, but Los Angeles came out with a similar approach to start the third quarter. On a quick inbound, Dennis Schröder attempted to find James in the far corner. However, Bridges flew from the middle of the court, using his length and hustle to reach the ball just in time to flip it back inbounds before falling into the crowd in front of him. This forced Schröder to quickly foul Paul, as the Suns had the numbers and the momentum heading back towards their basket.

Bridges finished the game with 10 points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in the victory. Shortly after the win, he spoke about the importance of this team remaining focused with a clear emphasis on togetherness.

“Times get tough. We don’t separate. We stay together,” Bridges said. “We’re going to fight through it together. No matter what the situation is. That’s why I love these guys. The coaches, as well. We’re going to stay true to ourselves. We’re going to stay together. We’re going to lock in even more.”

Johnson missed the final six games of the regular season due to a wrist injury on his shooting hand. It was clear something was wrong, as the normally lights-out shooter struggled to find rhythm in the games leading up to his absence.

The second-year player checked in midway through the first quarter for his first game action since May 5. Just a few minutes after getting back on the court, Johnson drained his first 3-point attempt, with the wrist appearing to be healthy again.

Johnson led the Suns’ second unit with 10 points including two 3-pointers. But like Bridges, Johnson’s hustle and unwillingness to back down stood out the most. This resulted in six rebounds and two steals for the 25-year-old.

Johnson matched up against James during the third quarter, but stuck to his fundamentals by staying low and showing his hands in an effort to clog the driving lanes yet refrain from fouling. James drove nonetheless, but Johnson remained in front him, disrupting James’ plan and forcing the turnover before immediately diving on the hardwood after the loose ball.

“Getting back out on the court, first home game in a while, just to see all the fans there was great,” Johnson said. “The atmosphere was incredible to play in it was a lot of fun.”

That electric atmosphere established early and often became the most useful during crunch time. The Suns watched the Lakers’ play-in game against the Golden State Warriors, when the Lakers came back in the fourth to win, and understood the talent level playing across from them.

But, once again, it was the young Suns rising to the challenge of closing out against the tough opponent.

The Suns toggled between a double- and single-digit lead during the final five minutes of the game, but needed to continue executing in order to secure the victory.

Bridges missed a midrange jumper with 4:59 to play, but despite four Laker defenders in the paint, Ayton rose up for the offensive rebound and putback. On the very next Suns possession, a missed 3-pointer by Booker ricocheted back to the free throw line. Ayton, in perfect position, once again jumped over four defenders to bring the ball down to the ground while drawing a foul.

After the Suns inbounded the ball, Booker was double-teamed with five seconds left on the shot clock. But Bridges broke down the Lakers’ game plan, driving to the middle of the paint. Booker quickly found Bridges, who knocked down the jumper over the outstretched arm of Davis.

Booker also grabbed three clutch rebounds during that time frame, helping the Suns stretch their lead to 12 with less than a minute remaining. Following a screen, Booker switched onto guarding James as Bridges picked up Caldwell-Pope. In an attempt to catch Bridges off guard, Caldwell-Pope dove to the basket as James flipped the ball inside.

However, Bridges used his length to reach out, deflect the ball and notch the game-sealing steal.

Since first arriving in Phoenix, Williams has stressed the importance of fundamentals and playing with consistency. Two years later, his message is being translated through the success of his young team on the game’s biggest stage.

“Certain things translate in the playoffs. Defense certainly does. Rebounding certainly does. You probably could add fundamentals to that,” Williams said. “The ability to space and be in the right spot at the right time. It's something we work on a lot, and sometimes it seems like busy work until you're presented with the situation when it's needed.

“As a younger player, you start to realize this is why we do all that stuff that may seem kind of boring and silly. I'm hopeful that they continue to grow and learn in those situations.”

That’s why Booker was pleased, but not surprised, by the way his team lived up to the moment in Game 1. 

“I loved it, but I don't question anybody in this group,” Booker said. “We've been together for not that long, but a full year now. Just understanding everybody's character and (having an understanding) of how they're built.

“We have a team for the built individuals that are ready for this moment, and (who have) been waiting for it for a long time.”

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