There was no hesitation or panic on Phoenix’s end during a wild contest that saw Suns guard Chris Paul briefly forced from action with a right shoulder contusion and a fourth-quarter scrum that led to the ejection of backup guard Cameron Payne. Indeed, the Suns held firm control throughout, claiming a 99-90 victory in front of a raucous crowd at Phoenix Suns Arena against a flat Lakers team that never got its offense into gear.
After enjoying a season of near-perfect health, Paul fell to the court early in the second quarter, clutching his right shoulder after colliding with teammate Cameron Johnson while chasing a rebound. The 36-year-old all-star guard remained on the ground for several minutes in evident pain before he walked to the locker room under his own power. James wished his longtime friend well on his way off the court.
Paul, whose offseason arrival helped catapult the Suns back into the playoffs, returned before halftime but appeared to favor the shoulder. He then exited the court for treatment again in the third quarter before finishing with seven points, eight assists and four rebounds in 36 minutes.
But Booker and Ayton more than picked up the slack as Paul received treatment and played through the injury. Booker tallied a game-high 34 points, to go with eight assists and seven rebounds, while Ayton added 21 points and 16 rebounds to win his matchup inside with Lakers center Andre Drummond.
“Anytime a guy lays it on the line physically like that, taking that kind of hit, going in the back and coming out playing, it gives you juice,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “Nobody would have faulted him for not coming back. When he did come back, you could see the emotion on his face, and that drove our guys. I got emotional watching him battle. I love Chris.”
Phoenix was similarly unbothered by the heated exchange early in the fourth quarter. After Paul fouled James after the Lakers forward missed a free throw, Payne shoved Alex Caruso to the ground. Caruso hopped up and tried to take the ball from Payne, who responded by throwing the ball at Caruso’s feet. Lakers center Montrezl Harrell then came rushing across the court and hugged Payne, nearly knocking him to the ground. Coaches from both benches rushed onto the court to ensure that the altercation didn’t escalate further.
“LeBron was in the air and got undercut, and some of the guys stood up for him,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said.
When the dust settled, Payne was ejected and both Caruso and Harrell were assessed a technical foul. The pressure-packed sequence didn’t faze the Suns, who maintained at least a seven-point lead down the stretch.
“There’s going to be a moment in the game where you have to regulate your emotions,” Williams said. “We knew they would be more physical in the second half. … We just talked about our guys having poise after the game. It was one game. You’re grateful for the win, but you have to come in with a heightened sense of awareness and respect for who you’re playing against.”
This was a sleepy and disappointing effort for the Lakers, with James scoring 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting and Davis adding just 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting. Drummond struggled defensively and played just 19 minutes, and the Lakers as a whole were out-hustled by the Suns, who seemed intent to strike first. Los Angeles endured similar slow starts in Game 1 of their first- and second-round series during the 2020 playoffs en route to their title in the Florida bubble.
“There’s no way we’re winning a game — let alone a series — with the way I played,” Davis said. “It’s on me.”
Paul’s health now looms over the balance of the series. He appeared in 70 of the Suns’ 72 games, sitting only on the second night of a back-to-back in February and on the final night of the regular season. Postseason injuries have cost Paul in the past: He was sidelined with hamstring issues in the 2015 conference semifinals and the 2018 conference finals, and a broken finger sent him home early from a 2016 first-round series.
There was no postgame doubt from Paul, who said he would “absolutely” be ready for Game 2 on Tuesday and added that he had watched a four-minute highlight clip of Kobe Bryant before Game 1. In the video, the Lakers legend had discussed the mental challenge of playing through injuries that were beyond his control.
“That was all that was going through my mind after I got hit,” Paul said. “Once [the trainers] checked me out, I knew if there was any way I could play, I was going to.”