Sparks fly in NBA playoff clash after ‘dirty’ play

Each time Anthony Davis sprawled to the ground after a tough foul or a difficult finish, he felt the cheers of about 7,000 frenzied Los Angeles Lakers fans lifting him back up.

The big man can’t wait until a full Staples Center has got his back. In the meantime, his Lakers intend to keep pushing their way past the Phoenix Suns, who pushed back too late — and a bit too zealously — in Game 3.

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Davis had 34 points and 11 rebounds, LeBron James added 21 points and nine assist and Los Angeles celebrated its first home playoff game in more than eight years with a 109-95 victory over Phoenix on Thursday night.

Dennis Schröder added 20 points and the seventh-seeded defending NBA champs took a 2-1 lead with their second straight victory in the first-round series — and the first postseason game for this championship core in front of its home crowd.

“It was good for us, good for our team,” Davis said of the cheers. “We just can only imagine how it will be when it’s 20,000 in here. It was still loud, still electric. When we’re able to get the whole stadium in here, the whole fans screaming and yelling, I know it’s going to be even better.”

Buoyed by both their fans and Davis’ second straight stellar game, the Lakers pulled away from erratic Phoenix in the second half again, much to their fans’ enjoyment.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” James said. “It was a special night, and we just tried to reward our fans for the loyalty they have for us, and just try to play the game the right way.”

A fierce late rally by the Suns came up short — and when it did, Phoenix came unglued. Devin Booker and Jae Crowder both were sent to the locker room early, with Booker tossed for a flagrant foul on a two-handed push to an airborne Schröder that Davis called “a dirty play.”

Several thousand masked fans watched inside Staples Center as the Lakers hosted their first playoff game in their downtown arena since April 28, 2013. Los Angeles won its 17th title in the Florida bubble last October, and the legions of fans confined to watching their beloved team’s rebirth on television turned up in force for this streak-breaking win.

“To me, it was this group’s first opportunity to play a playoff game in front of these fans,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We were really yearning for full capacity or close to full capacity, but to be able to deliver a victory in front of those guys is a great source of pride.”

Deandre Ayton had 22 points and 11 rebounds for the second-seeded Suns, who are in an early hole in their first postseason series in 11 years.

Booker scored 19 points on 6-of-19 shooting, but the star guard was ejected with 35.4 seconds to play after committing his flagrant foul against Schröder. Moments later, Crowder got a technical foul, following Booker off the court after apparently trying to confront Schröder.

Booker explained his frustration curtly: “We were losing the game. We want to win.”

“Can’t happen,” Davis said of Booker’s foul. “Can’t do that. They’ve been chirping, it’s playoff basketball, but you don’t push a guy out of the air like that, two hands. It’s a dirty play. Dennis could have really got hurt right there. … That just can’t happen. Hard fouls, things like that, playoff basketball. We accept those, but just to blatantly push a guy with two hands out of the air, it’s a scary play. Good thing he’s OK, but plays like that, it’s unacceptable.”

Phoenix also got another quiet game from Chris Paul, who played just 2 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter even though coach Monty Williams said the star point guard’s bruised right shoulder had healed. Paul had seven points and six assists in 27 minutes, and he spent part of his postgame interview bemoaning the presence of referee Scott Foster, a frequent target of his ire in recent years.

Davis scored 18 points in the third quarter while staking the Lakers to a 17-point lead, and Wesley Matthews hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter while Los Angeles pushed its margin to 21.

Cameron Payne hit three 3-pointers in a late rally, but the Suns couldn’t get closer than eight points.

“It wasn’t a close game, but we got it in reach,” Williams said. “And in those moments, all of our guys know we have to be better, and our guys agree.”

Phoenix won the series opener in impressive fashion, but the Lakers answered with much-improved play in a 109-102 victory in Game 2. The Suns were the NBA’s best road team during their outstanding regular season, but the Lakers are proving to be the nightmare matchup most expected when the champs slipped to the bottom of the bracket due to injuries.

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