All-Star guard Chris Paul was grimacing in pain early in the fourth quarter, playing essentially with one shoulder. Cameron Payne had just been ejected. Players had to be separated and emotions were heated.
Phoenix coach Monty Williams had warned his young Suns there would be moments like this in the NBA playoffs, especially against the defending champion Los Angels Lakers.
It’s safe to say they passed the first test.
Devin Booker scored 34 points, Deandre Ayton had 21 points and 16 rebounds and the Suns won their first playoff game in 11 years, beating the Lakers 99-90 on Sunday. For Booker, his long awaited appearance in the postseason lived up to the hype.
“The intensity’s different, the physicality is different,” Booker said. “And it’s only one game.”
It was the first playoff appearance for several Suns players, including Booker, Ayton and Mikal Bridges, but they didn’t look like postseason rookies against LeBron James and the Lakers. They helped Phoenix offset a tough game for Paul, who didn’t look healthy after a right shoulder injury in the second quarter.
The Suns led 86-70 early in the fourth, but the Lakers quickly cut it to 86-77 with 9:02 left.
That’s about the time things got a little rowdy. L.A.‘s Alex Caruso and Payne got into an altercation near the sideline after Payne knocked Caruso to the ground. L.A.’s Montrezl Harrell jumped into the fray and both teams had to be separated. Caruso and Harrell were each given a technical foul, and Payne was given two technicals and ejected.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about as a team and a staff,” Williams said. “There’s going to be a moment in the game where you’re going to have to regulate your emotions.”
Added Bridges: “Times get tough, we don’t separate. We’re going to fight through it together.”
The Suns did. Booker kept making shots and Ayton was a force on the glass, finishing with eight offense rebounds and shooting 10 of 11 from the field. The Lakers never got within striking distance in the final minutes.
“(Booker) is a scoring machine, puts a lot of pressure on our defense to cover him in a lot of ways,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “When we double team him, he’s got Ayton in there. We didn’t do a good enough job but if we hold this team to 99 points in Game 2, I feel good about our chances.”
James finished with 18 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Anthony Davis shot just 5 of 16 from the field and had 13 points. The Lakers shot 7 of 26 (27%) from 3-point range.
“I missed a ton of shots. We missed a ton of shots as a team,” Davis said. “There is no way we are winning a game, let alone a series, with the way I played. This is on me.”
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Phoenix. The Lakers have been in this spot before — they lost Game 1 in the first two series last season before rallying to win and eventually becoming NBA champion.
It was an eventful first half that saw the Suns take a 53-45 lead.
Phoenix had a 32-25 lead after the first. But the festive atmosphere in Phoenix turned to a stunned silence early in the second quarter when Paul bumped into teammate Cameron Johnson and fell to the floor in obvious pain while holding his right shoulder. He was down for a couple minutes — surrounded by players from both teams — before slowly walking off the floor with a towel over his head.
The 36-year-old star returned a few minutes later to a huge roar from the crowd, but didn’t look right. He was dribbling mostly with his left hand and missed the only shot he took before halftime.
Booker had 17 points before the break on 8-of-14 shooting and Ayton added 14.
The Lakers needed to beat Golden State on Wednesday in the play-in tournament just to earn the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. But they still came into the series as the slight betting favorites over the second-seeded Suns, according to FanDuel.
Paul said he “heard a crack” when he suffered his shoulder injury but is confident he’ll be good for Game 2.
Williams said he talked with Paul for a minute after the game about his shoulder. The coach said the point guard assured him that he’d be OK going forward.
“He was OK and he’ll be OK going forward, but he was pretty sore when he came back,” Williams said. “Him playing today gave us a lot of juice, lot of energy. It was inspirational.”
Vogel said his team expects to reach the 85% COVID-19 vaccination threshold Monday. He added that he didn’t expect much to change other than the team’s restaurant options might be expanded.
LOTS OF FOLKS
The Suns announced capacity for Sunday’s game was 11,000, but it felt like more were in an arena that holds a little more than 18,000. It was the first time there was more than 10,000 allowed in the newly-renovated arena.
“I was like ’Holy smokes. This is pretty cool,” Williams said. “I had to get myself under control emotionally.”
Lakers: The Lakers shot 19 free throws before the Suns shot their first. The Lakers finished just 17 of 28 on free throws. ... Vogel confirmed that guard Ben McLemore was in a recent car accident but was uninjured and available to play on Sunday.
Suns: The Suns were essentially fully healthy for Game 1. Forward Abdel Nader (knee) was the only player unavailable, but he’s been out for the past couple months.
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