The Suns, after all, have been playing this first-round Western Conference playoff series with a very limited version of Chris Paul (shoulder).
And the Lakers, of course, still have LeBron James — a 36-year-old still working his way back from an ankle injury that cost him more than a third of the season version of LeBron James.
But still, a LeBron James who has never lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“When I competed against the Miami Heat, and either [Dwyane] Wade or [Chris] Bosh was out, that meant more touches for Bron,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that wasn’t always a good thing for my Pacers teams.”
That version of James was in his late 20s, however. And he wasn’t coming off a serious ankle injury. The mid-30s version of James has thus far held off or counteracted the effects of age to remain one of the most dominant players in the NBA.
But the Lakers’ title defense now rides on whether this version of James can carry them through a Suns team that tied the series 2-2 as it heads back to Phoenix for Game 5 on Tuesday.
There will be talk from everyone else that James’ supporting cast will have to step up too. That Dennis Schroder will have to do better than his dud in Game 4, when he scored eight points on 3-for-13 shooting. That Kyle Kuzma will have to turn back into a scorer, after focusing on his all-around game throughout the season.
But that’s just everyone being polite.
“We’ll see,” James said, when first asked how his role might change throughout the series if Davis misses time with his latest injury. A source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Davis’ status is day-to-day.
A few minutes later, however, James acknowledged the obvious.
“These shoulders were built for a reason,” he said. “So, if it takes for me to put some more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”
Anthony Davis lands awkwardly after a missed layup and comes up hobbling a little bit late in the first half.
James led the Lakers in points (25), rebounds (12) and assists (six) on Sunday, making him the oldest player in NBA postseason history to do so.
The Suns have been watching their own version of this movie over the past week, starring Paul, their own age-defying 36-year-old. He had been a shell of himself since hurting his shoulder in the first half of the May 23 series opener, to the point that Phoenix coach Monty Williams wanted to sit him in Game 4.
During a 20-minute meeting with Williams and general manager James Jones before Sunday’s contest, Paul eventually persuaded the team to give him a chance to start.
“I have to trust his will and his experience and the things he’s done over the course of his career. He’s trained to be in these moments,” Williams said. “My final thought was, ‘I don’t want to be the one that takes that away from him.’ That was the lasting thing that I was thinking about, like, who am I to take that away from him? He’s worked his tail off for years to be in this moment, and I don’t want to be the doofus coach to take that away.”
Paul backstopped his arrangement with Williams by talking to his brother, CJ, and teammates Devin Booker and Jae Crowder.
“I told the guys, ‘I don’t know how long it’s gonna be,'” Paul recalled. “‘If you all feel like I’m out here lookin’ like some trash, just tell me and I’ll get out.’
“But I at least had to see what I could do.”
Paul was able to do a lot more in Game 4 — 18 points, 9 assists, 3 steals — than he had been able to in the previous three games, when Williams had to remove him in the second half.
Chris Paul confidently knocks down the midrange jumper over Andre Drummond and taunts he’s back as the Lakers call a timeout.
But perhaps most importantly, Paul had zero turnovers in nearly 32 minutes on Sunday against the Lakers’ top-rated defense. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was the sixth career playoff game in which Paul has had more than nine assists and zero turnovers, passing Magic Johnson for the most such games in NBA history.
That is emblematic of the veteran influence Paul has had on this young Suns team, which surged to the second-best record in the league this season. And it was vital on Sunday, in a tough road game against the defending champions, with the prospect of facing a 3-1 series deficit if the Suns were to lose.
The Suns were poised on Sunday, and they competed hard. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Phoenix contested 58 of the Lakers’ 81 field goal attempts (72%), a far higher percentage than the Suns contested on Thursday (57%) in their Game 3 loss.
The Lakers, on the other hand, contested only 40 of the Suns’ 85 field goal attempts (47%), the lowest mark by Los Angeles in the postseason since ESPN began tracking all postseason games in 2014.
Now it’s a best-of-three series, with a pair of 36-year-old future Hall of Famers — who happen to be great friends — dueling for a chance to keep their season and championship hopes alive.
“The best teacher in life is experience,” James said. “Me, personally, I look forward to the challenge. However the hand is dealt, I’ll be ready to play.”