by Gina Mizell

Headline

MOVING ON
Behind Devin Booker's legendary performance, Suns advance past Lakers with Game 6 victory in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — Devin Booker has “Be Legendary” tattooed on his forearm in a script that mimics the handwriting of the late Kobe Bryant. Bryant, Booker’s basketball idol, penned the message on a pair of shoes after they played each other during Booker’s rookie season, a forever keepsake and constant reminder as Booker charts his own NBA path. 

So it’s more than fitting that Booker’s first-career playoff series ended with this type of performance, inside this building.  

Booker dropped 47 points, including a career-high eight 3-pointers, to spearhead a 113-100 Suns victory that eliminated the defending-champion Lakers Thursday night at Staples Center and ensured that Phoenix’s magical season will continue. The Suns won their first-round playoff series 4-2 to advance to face the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals beginning Monday night at Phoenix Suns Arena.   

"I was just locked in, to be completely honest, from when I woke up," Booker said. "I had a tough time taking my pregame nap, all out of excitement. We treated this game like a Game 7. ... We were stressing since we won the last one that we wanted to end it here, on their home court."

Booker often talks about doing his work early, and he and his teammates quickly sucked the life out of a Staples Center crowd hoping to see their team push this series to a Game 7. Booker made eight of his nine first-quarter shots, including all six of his three pointers, to propel the Suns to a comfortable advantage that eventually reached 29 points in the second quarter. 

Booker finished the first half with 33 points, then reached 42 by the end of the third quarter. And when the Lakers threw a bevy of defenses at Booker — including at least two zones and multiple traps and switches, coach Monty Williams said — to help slice the Suns’ lead to 10 with about eight minutes to play in the fourth, Booker’s teammates stepped up in crunch time.   

Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder hit key 3-pointers. Chris Paul got to his vintage pull-up. Bridges snatched a steal on Lakers superstar LeBron James and finished in transition, and soon after, Crowder denied James at the rim to help seal the win.

"I just kept telling the guys (throughout the series), 'Stay focused,' Paul said. "There’s no better feeling than that last 30 seconds when you’re dribbling the clock out in a close-out game. We got a chance to get that feeling. ... This team put in a lot of work."

 

Because the Suns knew closing out the Lakers would not be easy. During a season packed with on-the-fly learning experiences for a rising team, this series was its own ecosystem featuring a barrage of twists and turns over the course of 12 days.  

Phoenix fought through the immediate adversity of Paul’s shoulder injury that has not fully healed. And the intensity that comes with playing the same opponent over and over, when heated emotions can dip into chippy extracurricular activity following the whistle. And the return of the biggest crowds since before the pandemic, starring boisterous home supporters and hecklers on the road.  

Through it all, the Suns leaned on their fierce sense of togetherness and relentless approach that have propelled them all season. After falling behind 2-1 in the series, Phoenix won three games in a row — the final two in convincing fashion — to take the series.  

“Typically, you don’t see young players play this way in these kinds of environments,” said Williams, who also won his first playoff series as a head coach. “So it says a lot about their character (and) integrity, but it also speaks to the season we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of close games against really good teams … The carryover from that, I believe, has helped them.”  

Booker thrived on the stage he has long awaited, recording four 30-point performances in six games. Deandre Ayton, another postseason neophyte, was efficiently dominant for the bulk of the series against the Lakers’ vaunted frontcourt, averaging a double-double. Backup point guard Cameron Payne was a firecracker off the bench, and other complementary players stepped up in key moments.   

As a team, the Suns have recorded the third-best defensive rating in the playoffs’ first round so far (102.6 points per 100 possessions), holding the Lakers to less than 40 percent field-goal shooting in two games and to 45 percent or less from the floor in all six games. 

It was a knockout blow that few outsiders expected the Suns to deliver.  

Despite finishing with the NBA’s second-best regular-season record (51-21), Phoenix entered this first-round series as betting underdogs. James and and fellow mega-star Anthony Davis were on their way back after sustaining significant injuries during the regular season, contributing to Los Angeles’ slide down the standings. James had never lost a first-round series in 14 career playoff trips. The Lakers had handily defeated the Suns without James on May 9, with Davis dropping 42 points and Ayton in foul trouble all night.  

Other West teams essentially lost on purpose during the regular-season’s final days, presumably in an effort to avoid a first-round meeting with the Lakers. The Suns, meanwhile, did not rest key players until their finale in San Antonio — and still won.  

“I hear every pundit,” coach Monty Williams said before the series began. “I’ve heard just about everybody on every platform talk about it. … Did anybody think we were gonna win 51 games this year, in a shortened season? So why would we listen to those people now?  

“ … We’re not upset or feel like anybody’s done something to our Cheerios. We have to go play the Lakers. Everything you want is on the other side of hard. Right now, the Lakers are our ‘hard,’ and that’s how we look at it. It’s a privilege.”

Added Booker that same day: “Somebody had texted me yesterday and was like, ‘They have you guys losing.’ I asked them, ‘Who are they?’”

Game 1 of the series felt like an unleashing of pent-up energy from the pandemic, and the excitement of the Valley’s return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.   

“Beat LA” chants routinely popped up as fans flooded the transformed Phoenix Suns Arena for a Saturday-afternoon tip-off. Those fans — and gleeful teammates —  exploded when the 6-foot Paul went airborne for a dunk during pregame warm-ups. The volume later reached an even more deafening level when the future Hall of Fame point guard returned from the locker room following his shoulder injury.  

Paul’s teammates answered the call in a 99-90 victory. Booker set a franchise record with 34 points in his playoff debut. Ayton finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds, a franchise record for boards in a playoff debut. The Suns out-rebounded the Lakers 47-33, igniting opportunities to push the pace and score in transition.   

The Lakers answered with a 109-102 Game 2 victory and a 109-95 win in Game 3, putting Phoenix in a 2-1 deficit with their floor general still on the mend.  

Paul’s shooting and passing were limited due to the injury, and he did not play in the final minutes of either game. The Suns rallied from 15 points down in Game 2 to take the lead about midway through the fourth quarter, before James and Davis made big shots to seal the win. Game 3 was an offensive struggle for both teams, until the Lakers caught fire in the third quarter.  

After Booker and Crowder were ejected late in Game 3, “poise” became the key word for Williams and players during the two-day break before Game 4. The Suns needed to direct a relentless focus on the game plan, the coach emphasized, not “silliness” with the officials or opponent. Williams also did not shy away from the importance of tying the series 2-2 instead of heading back home on the brink of elimination.   

“It didn’t look good after Game 3," Williams said. "I think everybody was kind of feeling it in Phoenix. But, as a team, we knew we had one more game where we could change the series — and we did, on the road. I think our guys got a lot of confidence coming out of Game 4 that we could win this series.” 

That 100-92 Suns victory at Staples Center featured balanced scoring, stifling defense and a monster third quarter to seize control.   

Paul returned to form in that contest with 18 points, nine assists and zero turnovers — a performance that nearly did not happen. Williams had planned to sit Paul, allowing his shoulder more time to rest and recover. But Paul persuaded Williams and general manager James Jones during a pregame conversation to let him start the game and, if he still did not look right, to pull him.  

“I don’t know if it’ll be two minutes. I don’t know if it’ll be 32 minutes,” Paul told his teammates. “But I feel like I gotta try to give you what I got.”    

Game 5 back home turned into a historic onslaught.  

Booker creatively scored 18 of his 30 points in the first quarter, propelling Phoenix to a double-digit lead. That advantage grew to a franchise-playoff-record 30 points at halftime, and 36 after the break. The Lakers, who were without Davis due to a groin strain sustained during Game 4, shot just 34.5 percent from the field, the second-lowest field-goal percentage for a Suns playoff opponent since at least 1983.   

Yet Paul and Crowder immediately stressed after the win that securing the fourth victory, the clinching victory, would be the most difficult of the series. Booker added that “the next game is the most important of my career.”  

Booker and his teammates more than delivered.  

With 37.9 seconds to play, Booker got free for a rim-rocking two-handed dunk, an exclamation point on a magnificent outing. During a timeout a few seconds later, Ayton began to dance while a group of Phoenix fans — many of them wearing the Warren Lotas merchandise line centered around Booker — started chanting “Let’s go Suns!”  

As Booker left the court, he lifted both arms to point while looking up, then pressed his hands together. What caught his eye: Bryant’s two retired jersey numbers, which hang in the rafters high above the visitors’ tunnel and glimmer under the Hollywood lights. 

"Honestly, I was thinking about Kobe and the conversations that we had," Booker said of that moment, "kind of about what we just went though, the postseason and being legendary and taking the steps to get there. So seeing that 8 and that 24 up there, with the way that the lighting at Staples has right here, it feels like it's shining down on you.

"I know he was here tonight. I know he was in the building. I know he was proud."

Booker and these breakthrough Suns passed their first playoff test — together. 

They knocked out the defending champs.

And there’s still more to do, more to come. 

ICYMI:

TEAM-FIRST MENTALITY

General manager James Jones is using his championship pedigree to construct a Suns roster on the rise

Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

PLAYOFF PAYNE

Thanks to a fresh start with the Suns, Cameron Payne is proving he belongs

Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.

ROAD SUPPORT

Fans from all walks of life travel to enemy territory to support the Suns in return to NBA Playoffs

“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”

Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.

LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT

The young Suns proved themselves under the bright lights, stepping up & executing in their playoff debuts

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 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.

MONTY'S MANTRAS

A frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year, Williams’ immense impact on these Suns is woven throughout his motivational catchphrases, and how they resonate with his players.

There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.

RALLY THE VALLEY

Here's how Suns supporters have celebrated this resurgent season and return to the playoffs.

Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.

TOGETHER

How these Suns have created a team spirit that threads the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving.

“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”

Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.

UNCANNY PARALLELS CONNECT FOUR PHOENIX ICONS

Chris Paul’s impact in The Valley has rejuvenated Suns basketball with an MVP-caliber season

Through his team’s journey to out-perform external expectations, his league’s-most-efficient playmaking and the leadership and passion he’s provided to the organization, Paul has entered the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. And while making Paul’s case, one can draw parallels to the other Phoenix basketball icons who have won the award: Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Diana Taurasi.

WE'RE BACK!

Phoenix Suns clinch playoffs, another step in franchise's resurgence.

The Suns’ full playoff berth is the latest benchmark in a historic turnaround. In less than two seasons, the Suns have transformed from a team that tied for the NBA’s second-worst record to one that currently possesses the league’s second-best record. Should that standing hold, the Suns would become just the third team since the NBA-ABA merger that jumped from bottom-two to top-two in two seasons or less, joining the Boston Celtics in 1979-80 and 2007-08.

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