Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, celebrates with guard Chris Paul during a timeout in the second half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
To prepare for Game 4, Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams did not go over the film of the Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers with his players.
Instead, he boiled it down to four key bullet points, most of which rounded back to the Suns returning to the way they’ve played all year.
They did just that on Sunday in a 100-92 win to snatch back homecourt and tie the series 2-2.
In a way, it’s amusing it worked out that way given what Williams decided on his own. Williams was determined, borderline strong-willed in sticking by his guys.
At first, he was going to sit the injured Chris Paul before letting him play, and Paul still showed in the first half he wasn’t the same Point God. Jae Crowder missed his first two shots badly after entering the game 2-for-20 from three-point range in the series.
A lot of Twitter head coaches, including this one in some facets, wanted Williams to pull the plug on both players or at least see some legitimate tweaks to the rotation.
But he kept both of those guys in, the two veterans with all that playoff experience, and boy did it pay off.
Paul had 18 points, nine assists, three steals and zero turnovers, nearly outscoring the 20 points he put up in the first three games of the series combined.
Williams spoke to general manager James Jones after a long, emotional discussion with Paul, where he convinced his coach to potentially still let him play. Williams alluded to the fact that Paul’s inability to do certain things could negatively impact the team, as it did in Games 2 and 3 with how the Lakers played off him.
“I don’t know if it’ll be two minutes, I don’t know if it’ll be 32 minutes, but I feel like I gotta try to give you what I got,” Paul told his coach after not touching a basketball since Game 3.
The decision was made. Paul played, Williams kept him in and it was the right call.
This was not a “he’s fine” or “he’s back” performance out of Paul, but he was able to do just enough to remain effective offensively. Paul led a surge in the third quarter, getting his two-man game going with Deandre Ayton before finding the strength and concentration to nail two midrange jumpers.
He took his first three-pointers since the injury, missing all three of them, and clearly was still passing and shooting a certain way that is foreign.
Paul is so talented that he’s improving game by game on how to play in this limited fashion. It is wild to watch unfold in real-time. He’s taking some of those jumpers going to his left, a shot he rarely used all season. But now he’s adding it to his arsenal in the middle of a playoff series, because has to.
“You could see it’s coming back,” Williams said, noting he’d have no idea that Paul would still be able to have his burst off the dribble and shoot, as well as his playmaking instincts.
“We knew it was coming with time,” Devin Booker said. “If it’s nothing structurally damaged, we knew that he needed some time, so I think that’s what makes this win even bigger for us.”
Crowder was excellent, doing the best he could to stop James from getting in the paint while adding 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block while a game-high plus-21.
Williams admitted Crowder was down on himself going into Saturday’s practice but saw his veteran wing perk up after some good work. One of the bullet points directly tied to something Crowder had to do.
“We just made a decision to have a let-it-fly mentality … We can’t get to this moment, start to change our game, get tight (and) worry about the consequences — I wanted our guys to be free,” Williams said.
“It’s just a matter of adjusting,” Crowder said. “I’ve been here before. I’ve been in slumps before, and I stayed even-keeled. Lean on my teammates, and that’s what I want to be for my teammates — someone they can lean on when things get tough.”
A good, crisp start might not have been one of those bullet points, but it should have been the fifth. And funnily enough, that was not what the Suns got off to.
They continued to miss open jumpers, turned the ball over a few times and in general weren’t smooth. Even with a Lakers effort that could be described as blah, Los Angeles led by 11 early in the second quarter.
But from that point on, Phoenix found its identity.
“I just thought the abandon we played with on defense. I thought the ability to get back into the paint and get hands on balls and get rebounds helped us,” Williams said.
The Suns played their best defense of the series, forcing 16 Lakers turnovers. Part of that effort was on the glass, where they went to war to salvage just a minus-1 total. And when they got those rebounds, they were pushing, getting back up to 16 fastbreak points after stalling out there the last two games.
“That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve been for our two years,” Williams said. “We try to defend and we try to play with a great deal of pace and play in 0.5. When we can get stops and get down the floor and the ball is just moving around the rim, don’t know if it favors us, but that’s how we like to play.”
Phoenix was up four through a slog of an opening two quarters before the team began playing its own way at the perfect time. The Lakers themselves didn’t have all that good of a beginning to the game, either, and then Anthony Davis didn’t play in the second half due to a left groin strain.
It could not have felt more obvious that his presence was missed for the Lakers inside, both with how Los Angeles defended without him and how the Suns attacked that space with Paul.
Meanwhile, Ayton was finishing on one end of the floor and protecting the rim on the other. He was an outstanding two-way force in the best game of his career, once again being the best interior presence in the series. He grinded with what Williams called a “relentless attitude” to snag a game-high 17 rebounds, along with scoring 14 points.
In the third quarter, six straight points by Ayton, a Mikal Bridges jumper and back-to-back Paul middies later resulted in a 14-point Suns lead four minutes into the second half.
With Davis out, the question was when LeBron James would turn it on to take over the game on his own to get the Lakers back in it. He never did, though, deferring to his teammates for the most part and letting the game continue to unfold in its direction. It does not appear what he did in Game 3 as a driver can come every game, at least not yet.
Paul and Cameron Payne kept finding ways into the paint, holding that cushion until the Lakers showed signs of life, getting the advantage down to 10 with 4:15 to play. Those four minutes and change felt like an eternity, and some of the Suns’ regular-season issues with closing out games and running clean offense continued until they hit enough shots.
Devin Booker and Paul made jumpers, and while the Suns collected more stops, Crowder connected on his third 3 of the night with 1:23 left to put the Suns back up 10 for enough relief to finish it off.
Booker finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. As a team, the Suns again underwhelmed from three-point range at 10-for-35 (28.6%), but Booker continued to trust his teammates and didn’t force his own shots.
“We have a great team [and] I can make plays for other people,” he said, noting it’s an understanding of what the Lakers defense is trying to do.
James had 25 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. He was the only Lakers starter to reach double figures, including Wes Matthews, who started in place of an injured Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Dennis Schroder was the best guard on either side in the last two games, but he posted a dud on Sunday, shooting 3-of-13 for eight points.
That’s a good place to end because Schroder’s down after some ups speaks to the mentality Booker and other Suns said they have to have.
“Understanding that it’s called a series for a reason,” Booker said.
The way they responded and rose to the occasion on Sunday showed that understanding, and with two games left at home, now the Suns are back in the driver’s seat where they can utilize it even more.