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“Uh-oh,” Devin Booker said, a grin forming between the rosy cheeks of the Phoenix Suns' All-Star guard.
He knew. So did teammate Chris Paul. And with Anthony Davis in the locker room, LeBron James and the Lakers couldn’t hide from the truth.
Still, Booker wanted to make sure the rich and famous sitting in the front row of Staples Center knew their Lakers were in trouble.
With Davis nursing an injured groin and Paul suddenly knocking down elbow jumpers like he was 26 instead of 36 with a bad shoulder, everything changed Sunday, the Suns grabbing control of a series that was about to slip through their fingers by beating the Lakers 100-92.
The series is now even at 2-2, the Lakers unsure when Davis will be able to return to action.
“The one thing that you can’t predict is if one of your focal points goes down,” said James, who had a game-high 25 points. “And obviously that was big for our team.”
Already dealing with a sprained left knee from Game 3, Davis landed gingerly on a driving layup in the final minute of the second quarter, immediately grabbing at the inside of his left leg as he fell to the court following the miss. He didn’t come out of the locker room at halftime, the team ruling him out shortly after because of a strained groin.
Davis left the arena and will be “undergoing further medical evaluation,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, with the team expecting a clearer picture of his availability come Monday. According to people familiar with the injury but not authorized to speak publicly, Davis has a Grade 1 strain and there’s some pessimism that he’ll be available to play in Game 5 on Tuesday in Phoenix.
That’s no surprise given the way the Lakers’ season has unfolded. Davis’ latest injury cut short a brief glimmer of what a healthy Lakers team could do.
In truth, that vision probably got shattered during their physical Game 3 win over the Suns, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Davis both suffering knee injuries in the win. Davis defiantly declared on Saturday that he’d play in Game 4, but during pregame warmups and the first half, he would grab at the sprained knee.
Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers primary defender who was a plus-29 over the team’s last two games, was ruled out by medical staff after going through individual work Sunday morning.
Even down Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers looked like a team ready to grab control of the best-of-seven series with the Suns, pushing early to a double-digit lead while James unleashed a pair of highlight-reel dunks. He spun past the Suns defense and slammed home the ball with one hand before catching an alley-oop pass off the backboard from Alex Caruso for a thundering two-handed dunk in transition.
While the Suns showed signs of breaking near the end of Game 3 when both Booker and Jae Crowder were ejected, they responded to the Lakers' best on Sunday without a flinch.
Following Caruso’s lob to James, the Lakers superstar floated to the court after hanging on the rim, a meme happening in real-time while the crowd and Lakers bench lost control. The Suns' Mikal Bridges, though, calmly walked into a three-point jumper on the other end to puncture the excitement.
The shot started a 10-2 run to close the half, the Suns never trailing again.
With Davis in the lineup this series, the Lakers offense struggled, doing just enough to win Games 2 and 3. Without him in the second half, the Lakers were largely lost — especially during a 15-point third quarter when the team made just three of 16 shots and missed all seven of its three-pointers.
While they closed to within five points after trailing by as many as 18, James’ 11 fourth-quarter points weren’t enough.
The Suns' return to contention in the series came on Paul’s best effort of the playoffs so far — 18 points on 15 shots with nine assists. Pregame, it wasn’t a guarantee that he’d be in the lineup, his injured shoulder impairing his play so badly in the first three games of the series that Phoenix coach Monty Williams has closed games with Cameron Payne on the court instead of Paul.
But Sunday, he yo-yoed his dribble through the Lakers defense to get to his favorite spot on the court, jumping and hitting a fadeaway mid-range jumper.
“I’m back,” cameras caught him saying.
And so are the Suns.
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.