PHOENIX — It has been clear since their playoff series two seasons ago that the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers bring emotion out of each other. I wouldn’t shoot you down if you went as far as saying they don’t like each other all that much.
Sure, there is some respect mixed in there, but when their competitive spirits reach a certain level, those emotions tend to come leaking out at some point in the game.
Tuesday’s 115-105 Suns win was the latest chapter.
“For whatever reason, there’s always a bit of whatever when we play them,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.
When counting preseason and postseason games, it is the 11th straight time the Suns have beaten the Lakers since a Game 3 loss in the 2021 NBA playoffs, a contest Devin Booker and Jae Crowder were both ejected from after losing their respective cools. The game infamously had the meme of when LeBron James was posting up the Suns, with former Laker Andre Drummond imitating James as part of the hype Los Angeles bench in the background for James’ takeover of the game.
Crowder and Chris Paul were seen briefly doing that Drummond pose at the end of Game 6 when Phoenix moved on and sent the Lakers home.
Adding Patrick Beverley to this equation was sure to incite something by the end of this season, a player the Suns faced later that postseason and ended his season after Beverley shoved Paul in the back at the end of the Western Conference Finals.
We didn’t even get to December and past the first regular season meeting before sparks developed.
After some physical defense by Booker on guard Austin Reaves, someone Booker said he likes and doesn’t have an issue with, Booker appeared to block Reaves’ shot before getting called for a foul with under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was that type of defensive stop that had a little oomph to it on the ball, and Booker added even more when he stood over Reaves and stared him down when he was whistled for a foul. Shortly after that, his teammate Deandre Ayton also wanted to get a quick glance at Reaves.
That is when Beverley had decided he’d seen enough. He came flying into the picture, shoving Ayton in the back over Reaves. By the time Ayton got up, as he admitted after the game he put a little extra English on his fall to the ground to sell it, everyone was fairly separated and nothing more came of the kerfuffle.
Beverley was ejected and the review showed Booker’s block was actually a Flagrant 1.
“I just think the league needs to take a look at those kinds of plays,” Williams said of Beverley’s shove that will likely earn him a suspension. “They’re just unnecessary. There was obviously some tension. But with us, it’s just happening too many times. When you push a guy when he’s not looking like that, it’s just not called for. There’s going to be physicality, there’s going to be tension in games. That’s just the nature of basketball, when you have big strong guys hitting each other the whole game.
“If you’re standing face to face with a guy and you have words or you may tussle, a little bit that’s normal for the NBA. To continue to do that, it’s just out of control. It’s just happening to us too many times. So yeah, the league, they threw him out of the game but it’s getting kind of silly now. To the point where you just kind of get your guys out of the way and say, ‘Guys, let’s just win the game.’ But it’s just getting silly. That’s the only word I can come up with.”
We’ve, of course, seen the Suns bring this out of opposing players quite a bit the last two years. Beverley wasn’t the first that postseason. Nikola Jokic got tossed when Phoenix eliminated the Denver Nuggets. There was Cam Johnson and the Knicks’ Julius Randle last regular season.
The Suns have a mindset from Williams centered on winning the game while playing in a way that will force the opponent to reach a breaking point. Most of the time that comes through their quality of play. But every now and then, there is an action that serves as the reaction.
“You’re not going to necessarily win that, whatever that is,” Williams said of the kerfuffles. “And we’ve always said you gotta have a mentality where you just keep jabbing a guy in the head and sooner or later they’re gonna break and that’s what we did tonight. Our guys got it back together and we were able to close out the game.”
Ayton elaborated on what he said Williams instilled on the group.
“We’re not really playing hard to make you quit. We just played hard,” Ayton said. “Because we have a bigger agenda. This team, we’ve been embarrassed the last two years playing the best basketball we’ve ever played and never finishing. So if you think tonight is where we stop at? Nah. Well, we are looking at the brighter picture. We fight for something way bigger than that. There’s going to be a lot more of these. We just gotta make sure we keep our head and play hard.”
Ayton said his reaction was to stay composed and make sure he wasn’t going to be in a situation where he could be thrown out of the game or potentially miss even more.
“Like me, I don’t worry about it,” Ayton said of Beverley’s shove in the back to him. “He ain’t hurt me. He didn’t take anything out of my pocket and I didn’t react. Making sure I stay solid, man! I’m not reacting! They ain’t getting me out of the game! I’m staying in! So I’m gonna lift my leg up and go crazy like, ‘Hey!’”
Booker told TNT’s Chris Haynes afterwards Beverley needs to stop pushing people in the back, and instead, in the chest if he’s going to keep doing it.
“I’d have a lot more respect if he just pushed him in the chest when the man was facing him,” Booker said. “But it is what it is.”
I asked Booker if there is something extra in these last 11 games or if the winning streak is just a coincidence. He paused and then chuckled to himself for a half-second.
“I think that’s a good question,” he said. “I just think that’s how the cards have fallen. I didn’t even know it was 11 times. Let’s keep it up.”
While the momentum at that point was in the Suns’ favor, the game was far from over, a 10-point score with 3:55 to go during a lackluster Phoenix effort.
Alas, Beverley’s actions, like in the Western Conference Finals, defiantly told us the game was indeed over. The mental breaking point had arrived. We just didn’t know it yet until Ayton toppled over.
Williams doesn’t like to read too much into numbers and results off one game or two. He and the Suns like to break it into segments of 10 games.
After Sunday’s win over the New York Knicks, Williams noted how the overall consistency of his team was there for the first iteration.
This one, however, he said has had less of it so far, which can partially be attributed to the injuries for Chris Paul (right heel soreness), Johnson (right meniscus tear) and Landry Shamet (concussion protocols).
With that said, the core principles of the team haven’t been as automatic and crisp as they normally are, even through wins.
The Suns’ defense on Tuesday allowed lots of pressure at the rim and easy baskets, surrendering 41 of the Lakers’ 55 points in the first half off of points in the paint (28) and free throws (13).
In the third quarter, the Suns managed a 33-24 edge that was enough of a cushion to be in a good position from there. Williams said assistant coach Bryan Gates told him that there was a run of seven out of eight possessions with a stop, something Gates wasn’t exactly sure how was a thing given the Suns weren’t playing all that well.
Phoenix ultimately got enough contributions offensively from its supporting cast during off nights for Booker and Cam Payne.
Mikal Bridges scored 16 of his 25 points in the first half, and when Payne ran into foul trouble in the fourth quarter, his backup Duane Washington Jr. scored 10 of his 15 points across a stretch the Suns really needed buckets in.
Los Angeles’ depth did the opposite, unable to do just enough to help Anthony Davis’ spectacular 37 points, 21 rebounds, two assists, five blocks and five steals cross the finish line in a victorious fashion. Lonnie Walker IV provided 24 points and it was a good Russell Westbrook performance of 21 points. Austin Reaves’ 11 points, though, made him the only other Laker in double figures on a night they shot a terrible 4-for-22 (18.2%) from 3-point range.
Phoenix, meanwhile, was 16-of-34 (47.1%) at range.
Booker was 10-of-24 for 25 points with four rebounds, five assists and four turnovers. Payne shot 5-for-15 with 11 points, seven assists and five turnovers.
Phoenix was just 3-of-5 at the foul line while the Lakers were 29-for-35. Davis attempted 16 of those and made 15.