LOS ANGELES (AFP/NYTIMES) - The Phoenix Suns, fuelled by 47 points from Devin Booker, beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-100 on Thursday (June 3) to eliminate the reigning NBA champions in the first round of the playoffs.
Superstar LeBron James scored 29 points to lead the Lakers, but they were unable to dig themselves out of a 29-point first-half hole and lost the best-of-seven Western Conference series four games to two.
It is the first time that James, 36, has exited the playoffs in the first round - and it was a young, up-and-coming team that hastened his departure.
The second-seeded Suns, who are making their first postseason appearance since 2010, leaned on the inside-outside combination of Booker, 24, and Deandre Ayton, 22, throughout the series.
"I just know they wanted to be in these types of games," Monty Williams, the Suns' coach, said before Thursday's game. "And I think they haven't run from the moment, run from situations."
Both players, Williams said, got a taste of the spotlight last season, when the Suns won eight consecutive games in the league's bubble - a run that left Phoenix short of qualifying for the postseason but made the team's young core eager to achieve more.
The Suns will now face the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals. The Nuggets eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.
The Lakers, who were hindered by injuries throughout the regular season, seemed to come unglued against the Suns after Anthony Davis, their All-Star power forward, strained his groin before halftime of Game 4.
The Suns went on to win that game and then crushed the Lakers on Tuesday in Game 5 to seize momentum.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before Thursday's game that Davis "very much" wanted to play.
Davis tried: He was in the starting lineup but was running gingerly from the tip and appeared to aggravate his injury while trying to block one of Booker's layups early in the first quarter. Davis promptly went to the bench and never returned to the game.
The Suns, meanwhile, were volcanic, shooting 10 of 13 from beyond the 3-point line in the first quarter en route to a 22-point lead heading into the second. Booker finished with 47 points and shot 8 of 10 from 3-point range.
Since joining the Lakers before the start of the 2018-19 season, James has experienced highs and lows. His first season with the team unravelled when he injured his groin on Christmas Day, and the Lakers missed the playoffs.
Last season, he engineered a resurgence, joining Davis to lead the Lakers to their 17th championship. For James, the run was a crowning achievement: his first title with the Lakers, and his fourth overall with three teams.
As expected, the Lakers entered this season with big goals but struggled. After a strong start that seemed to position him as a candidate to win his fifth NBA Most Valuable Player Award (and his first since 2013), James missed a total of 26 games after he sprained his ankle in March.
And Davis, who has been hobbled by injuries throughout his career, was sidelined for about two months with a calf strain.
The result was that the Lakers, who had been considered among the preseason favourites to win another title, were seldom whole, and they limped into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the West.
Still, the Lakers were not an ideal first-round matchup for the Suns - and the task became even more challenging for Phoenix when Chris Paul, the team's starting point guard and veteran leader, injured his right shoulder in the first game of the series.
Paul played through the pain, though, and was terrific in Phoenix's Game 4 win, a turning point for a franchise on the rise.