In a tense, physical Game 4, the Suns evened their first-round series with the Lakers, pulling into a 2–2 tie with a 100–92 win. The series is quickly turning into a war of attrition. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed the entire game and Anthony Davis missed the second half with injuries, while Chris Paul, still tentative with his right shoulder injury, had his best game of the postseason. LeBron James scored 25 points in the loss, but Paul led a balanced Phoenix attack with 18 points in what was a gutty, defensive battle. Here are three thoughts on the Suns’ win.
Chris Paul is Coming Alive
The first three games of this series brought out a very muted version of CP3, who hurt his right shoulder early in Game 1. Sunday, Paul finally looked closer to the Hall-of-Fame version of himself. He played 32 minutes—his first time over 30 since Game 1—and his 18 points were the first time he reached double digit scoring in these playoffs. While Paul’s efficiency isn’t quite there (7-for-15 from the floor, 0-for-3 from three), it’s not all about scoring when it comes to his impact. CP looked more aggressive handling the ball in pick-and-rolls, which goes a long way in making his teammates’ lives more simple. Paul was being practically ignored by Laker defenders for large stretches of the last two games. Him getting to his midrange area of operation in Game 4 put more pressure on Los Angeles. He opened up enough space for guys like Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges to hit some timely threes, while also giving Deandre Ayton some favorable position in the lane. And late in the fourth, with the Lakers mounting a comeback, Paul made a brilliant defensive play, deflecting and stealing a Marc Gasol pass that saved Phoenix from a scramble situation and helped preserve a precarious seven-point lead. If Paul continues to improve health-wise—and Davis is now nursing his own issues—the tenor of this entire series shifts.
Deandre Ayton Continues to Impress
Phoenix took control of this game (and then held on for dear life) in the third quarter, in large part due to the continued renaissance of big man Deandre Ayton. The former No. 1 overall pick posted his fourth straight double double Sunday, and with 14 points and 17 rebounds, he’s now averaging 19.8 points and 13.5 rebounds a night in his first postseason. Ayton’s energy really stands out. He’s dominating his matchup against Andre Drummond, and the Lakers have had very few answers for him when he’s active in the paint. He’s also proving to be a valuable deterrent defensively, particularly with the Lakers’ oft shooting-challenged lineups. The Suns had a 89.7 defensive rating with Ayton on the floor in Game 4. They're solid up and down the lineup, but Ayton going from someone who was a target of opposing teams to becoming such a major factor in a high-stakes playoff matchup has been one of the most impressive developments of the playoffs.
Where do the Lakers Go From Here?
Now Los Angeles has to play the injury game. Even if Davis is out for extended time, the Lakers can win this series. They were closing in on Phoenix in the fourth, and Frank Vogel still has some cards to play moving forward. Gasol, for example, should almost certainly start Game 5. The Lakers offense—particularly without Davis—looked much better with him on the floor. Gasol hit three triples on Sunday, loosening up the defense in a way Drummond cannot. His presence on the court also helps draw Ayton out of the paint, which makes life easier for James. Meanwhile, Alex Caruso was a team-best plus-eight in Game 4, and it may be time to bump his minutes into the 30s. Caruso’s individual defense on Booker was stellar, and playing him and Gasol together tightens the screws on LA’s defense.
It’s incredible how much of a difference one game can make. The Suns were a hobbled bunch who lost home court after Game 3. Now Phoenix has regained its home advantage and looks relatively healthy while the Lakers deal with injuries to a superstar (AD) and a solid starter (KCP). More twists and turns are almost certainly in store. Game 5 is Tuesday.
More NBA Coverage:
• Atlanta is Falling in Love With Trae Young
• Kawhi Leonard Is Not Cutting It With the Clippers
• Kyrie Irving’s Return to Boston Reignites Racism Issue
• Hawks' Supporting Cast Too Much for Top-Heavy Knicks to Handle