In celebrating the return to basketball, we will be previewing potential first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the six teams who could finish as the eighth seed after eight seeding games in Orlando. Today’s team is the Phoenix Suns.
As 22 teams head to Orlando to resume the NBA season, the biggest remaining regular-season storyline is the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Among those given a new life in those final eight games are the Phoenix Suns, despite just a 26-39 record, six games behind the current eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
The Suns’ chances of making a run to the postseason for the first time since 2010 are low but what if they do enough to make the play-in tournament and find themselves among the top eight teams in the West? How would the Lakers, the almost certain top seed, match up with them in a seven-game series?
The Lakers had little difficulty dismantling the Suns in their three matchups this season, winning by an average of about 15 points per game. The last game between the two teams, in February, saw the Lakers come out on top by 25 points despite LeBron James having an off night with just 17 points on 16 shot attempts.
In that game, just like their other matchups, the Lakers dominated with their inside presence. In fact, they finished the game with 30 rebounds more than their opponents, including a 16 to three edge on the offensive glass. In three matchups, the purple and gold averaged about 12 offensive boards against the smaller Suns.
The Lakers’ trio of big men in Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have terrorized many teams this year with 48 minutes of crashing the glass and putting pressure on the rim as well as consistent rim protection. Against the Suns, who typically only play with one big man on the floor, be it DeAndre Ayton or Arron Baynes, that impact becomes even larger (pun intended) and at times impossible for the smaller division rivals to battle against.
The Lakers’ size advantage isn’t just limited to their center rotation, however. The Suns also lack the proper size to deal with James while their best player, Devin Booker, does not have the size of a big wing that has routinely given the Lakers problems this year. The Lakers could throw any of Danny Green, Alex Caruso, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the young star and live with the results.
Where the Suns could hurt the Lakers is through Baynes’ shooting. The Lakers have had their fair share of trouble defending bigs who can shoot, particularly when either McGee or Howard have to venture to the vaunted perimeter to contest a jumper. Baynes provides that threat while not being a defensive liability and holding his own on the glass. It’s a much different playstyle with the former Spurs and Celtics’ big man in the middle than when Ayton, a former number one overall pick, sees the floor. The latter is much more comfortable in the paint off of pick and roll actions or post-ups, but the Lakers are much more willing to live with isolating on the low block.
Ultimately, as with most of the first-round series, this comes down to top-level talent. Booker is a great young player but he’s not James and he’s not Davis. More importantly, he doesn’t have a reliable second star next to him and no one who draws the attention of the defense enough to make his job easier. Ricky Rubio has provided some assistance in the playmaking department but when his outside shot is not falling (and it usually isn’t), he cannot bend a structurally sound defense like the Lakers. The Lakers would likely defend Booker with multiple players and schemes, potentially doubling him to make any other Sun create for themselves. But at the end of the day, there’s just not enough support for him to trouble the Lakers; the Suns are, in all honesty, the ideal opponent in the first round, albeit an unlikely one.