In the final minutes of pregame warmups Sunday, Chris Paul flung the ball in the air, waiting for it to hit the court before jumping to grab and dunk it. While the barely 6-foot Paul got ready to slam, Phoenix Suns reserve Javon Carter waved for the crowd to make noise. As the Suns leader jumped, his entire team joined him, the fans and players erupting to celebrate a basket that didn’t count.
If that’s what it was like before things counted, you can imagine the intensity and excitement the Suns brought to their 99-90 victory in Game 1, their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.
“We knew they were going to come out strong. It’s their first playoff series in a long time. They’re going to be hungry for it,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said Monday. “And I feel like we wasn’t ready for what they had for us.”
The Lakers sure weren’t, the Suns making it clear that they weren’t going to cower against the defending champions, not in front of their fans, not at the end of such a successful season that secured Phoenix the No. 2 seed in the powerful Western Conference.
While the Lakers came back from 1-0 deficits twice in the playoffs last year, that team had a season’s worth of cohesion. This team, even as it tries to adjust from a wretched offensive performance, is still learning one another.
“With the lineups, with the big lineup, we just didn’t have enough time to work on it. So it’s something we’re just kind of throwing out there with little time and little experience,” said center Andre Drummond, a late-season acquisition. “I think we’re doing a good job of figuring it out on the fly. Just … being in the playoffs right now, obviously lineup changes are going to happen, we’re gonna do whatever it takes to win. So it’s just feeling it out and trying to do what’s best for the team.”
Neither Lakers coach Frank Vogel nor Suns coach Monty Williams would say much when it came to their plans for Game 2, Williams even keeping updates about Paul’s injured right shoulder intentionally vague.
Williams said Paul was on the court during the team’s walkthrough but still sore from the bruise he suffered in Game 1. Vogel said all Lakers are “good to go.”
While Phoenix expects the Lakers to improve over the series, the Suns are hopeful for more from their team — a healthier Paul would go a long way in easing the offensive burden on All-Star guard Devin Booker and third-year center Deandre Ayton. The Lakers, undoubtedly, will try to lock in on those two in Game 2.
“We got to be willing to make adjustments, win or lose,” Vogel said. “So this is no different whether we won Game 1 or lost Game 1.”
Choices at center are the most obvious, Vogel having options starting with veteran Marc Gasol, left out of the series opener. Then there’s Davis, who is always an option at center. The Lakers had a positive overall rating during the 10 minutes he shared the court with LeBron James, Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso and Caldwell-Pope.
Then there’s the simpler solution — just make more shots.
“We missed a ton of shots as a team,” Davis said Sunday. “… But there’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way that I played. So, I mean, this is on me. I take full responsibility, for sure. We’ll be better Game 2.”
And if they’re more ready to play, that would be a good place to start. The Lakers made 43.4% of their shots from the field and only 26.9% from three-point range, well below their season averages of 47% overall and 35.4% from deep.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.