The 2021 NBA playoffs have provided fans with some thrilling games to this point, and that continued Sunday afternoon in the Game 1 matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. In a game that featured just about everything including apparent injuries to star players, multiple technical fouls issued and even an ejection, it was the Suns that came out on top on their home court in a 99-90 win.
With Chris Paul certainly not looking like himself after suffering a right shoulder contusion during the second quarter, it would have been understandable if Phoenix would have given up its lead and ultimately dropped Game 1. That didn't happen, though. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker were masterful as the two combined for 55 points and 23 rebounds.
Phoenix now takes a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series with Game 2 scheduled for Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on TNT. We'll just have to wait and see what sort of shape Paul's shoulder is in after the quick turnaround. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 1.
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The kids are growing up
Entering Sunday, Chris Paul had played in 109 playoff games. The next nine most-used players on Phoenix's roster this season had played in 100 combined. This was a genuine concern for the Suns entering the postseason. Could such a young team really be expected to keep up with the defending champions?
Well, one game in, we have our answer, and it's about as resounding a yes as you possibly could have imagined. The young Suns couldn't lean on Paul to carry them to the finish line after he hurt his shoulder, so it was up to the youngsters to lead the way. They did just that. Devin Booker scored more points (34) than LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined (31). Ayton had more rebounds (16) than Davis had points (13). Mikal Bridges held James below 20. Cameron Payne was an important supplementary ball-handler before his ejection.
The Suns had every excuse to lose this game. For most of them, it was their playoff debut. The Lakers shot 16 more free throws. Paul got hurt and could hardly shoot. It didn't matter. Phoenix did what it has done all season. It took care of business, and if there were any doubts about how this team would hold up in the postseason, those should now be gone. The Suns are ready for this moment.
What's up with Anthony Davis?
If Anthony Davis was just hurt, that would be one thing, and hey, he might still be dealing with the nagging effects of his calf injury to some extent. But Davis played against the Suns two weeks ago today. He had 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. The Lakers won that game without James or Dennis Schroder. They lost this one, and Davis was a major reason why. Davis had a game-worst minus-18 point-differential. He shot 5 of 16 from the field and wasn't his typically destructive self on defense.
The Lakers can live with a sub-peak LeBron. His basketball IQ is so high that he can still find ways to impact the game at a superstar level. He did that today with his passing, and sure enough, the Lakers had a positive point-differential with him on the floor at plus-2. But Davis has to be at his athletic best for the Lakers to win the title. So much of their defense relies on him blowing up multiple actions in a single play, and so much of their offense relies on him making his jump shots, as he did last postseason, rather than missing them, as he has for most of this season. If his jumpers aren't falling, opposing defenders won't respect the shot and will sag into the paint. That's the last thing the Lakers need given their overall shooting woes. They'll need a far more aggressive Davis in Game 2 if they hope to turn this thing around.
More Game 1 woes
The Lakers lost Game 1 of their first two series last season. They went on to sweep the next four games in each of them. This has been a frequent bug in LeBron's career. He entered Sunday with a 29-20 record in Game 1's. Not bad, but it's the only point in a given playoff series in which his winning percentage is below 60. If you only count series that didn't end in sweeps, James was below .500 entering Sunday at 17-18. LeBron tends to get stronger as series go. So do the Lakers.
But last year's team got away with it in large part because of their competition. The Blazers were a No. 8 seed and dealt with injuries throughout that series. The Rockets didn't have a fully healthy Russell Westbrook and lost Danuel House midway through the series. The Lakers were heavy favorites in both matchups. That's not the case right now, unless Paul's injury is more serious than we know.
The Suns won 51 games this season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West for a reason. This is a very, very good team, one that likely would have finished near the Lakers in the standings even if the defending champions had been healthy all year. The Lakers could afford to mess around for a game against last year's opponents. They can't this year. They have to take the Suns seriously, because if they don't, they're going to reach the end of this series and realize that even if they're the better team, they've dug themselves too big a hole to climb out of.