The Los Angeles Lakers officially begin their title defense on Sunday as they go on the road to face the number two seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Lakers are coming off a huge test on Wednesday, beating Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors on a last-minute game-winner from LeBron James to secure their spot in the postseason after an injury-riddle season.
The Lakers, then, are battle-tested. Not only have they gone through a grueling playoff run with this same core just last season, but they come into the game with the fate of their season on the line. The Suns, meanwhile, are the new kids on the block. Yes, star point guard Chris Paul has been in many playoff battles of his own with varying amounts of success. But as a team, they have not been here before. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are getting their first taste of playoff basketball with the reality check of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champs hoping to put an end to their surprising and magical season.
Still, the Suns enter the matchup as one of the best teams in the NBA. They are one of just four teams – the others being the Jazz, the Clippers, and the Bucks – to finish the season ranked in the top ten in both offense and defense. They held the third-best net rating (their point differential per 100 possessions) in the league, only behind the Jazz and the Clippers. Paul was considered by many to be an MVP candidate averaging 16 points and nine turnovers per game while leading an often explosive offense alongside his young up-and-coming star teammates.
The Suns won two of the three regular-season matchups though it’s hard to take much from any of them. The Lakers never had both James and Davis available (each played one game) while Booker was ejected early in one of the Suns’ wins.
Here are some keys to the series:
It’s not often that the seventh-seeded team has the two best players in a first-round series but that’s exactly the case here by some margin. LeBron James and Anthony Davis struggled mightily in the first half against the Warriors before turning it on late in the game and leading the victory. Against a much better Suns squad, they cannot afford to have those kinds of performances again, much less simultaneously.
The good news is that the Suns, despite their great team defense, don’t seem to have much in the form of individual defenders who can bother James or Davis. In his one game against the Suns this year, James scored 38 points (with only five free throw attempts) and dished out six assists in a loss. Davis, in his appearance, racked up 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and three blocks, doing the majority of his work at the free-throw line.
James will likely see Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges as his primary defenders. Bridges is one of the best perimeter defenders the league has to offer already but he gives up a lot of size to James, making it a tough cover for the young wing. Crowder has the size and toughness but isn’t as solid of a defender and, as we saw in the Finals last season, has not generally given LeBron too much trouble outside of getting under his skin at times. Of note, according to NBA tracking data (which can be a little inaccurate so take it with a grain of salt), LeBron scored 10 points on four-of-four shooting and dished out three assists in the 3.6 possessions in which he got Ayton guarding him on a switch.
Ayton will primarily match up against Davis, another defensive assignment he struggled with in the one game they faced off against each other. But he is the Suns’ best option against the All-NBA big man. Other players who could see time against AD – especially in minutes where he plays as the power forward next to Andre Drummond or Marc Gasol – are Frank Kaminsky, Torrey Craig, and Dario Saric. Theoretically, Davis should have success against any of these players and force double teams that can unlock the rest of the floor for shooters or for James to drive to the basket.
If James and Davis are healthy – we know they are carrying injuries but in their own words, they are good to go without any excuses – and playing at their best, the duo should easily outscore the Suns’ stars in Paul and Booker. That alone should give the Lakers a chance to win each game so long as they get enough help from their supporting cast.
One of the defining characteristics of the Lakers’ championship run last season was their defense against lead guards. They did admirable jobs against Damian Lillard, James Harden, and Jamal Murray in subsequent series, helping them get past each of those opponents fairly comfortably.
In the season series, they had varying levels of success against Devin Booker. In the Suns’ two losses, the two-time all-star had good shooting nights against the Lakers but they managed to keep him from taking over the game at the free-throw line, a key component of his game. In the Lakers’ win, Booker shot poorly from the field (5-14) but got to the line 13 times to keep himself largely efficient.
The Lakers will likely switch up their coverages on both Booker and Paul including throwing double teams at each of them. Both like to run isos, pick-and-rolls, and even post-ups when the matchup presents itself so it will take focus from the Lakers’ quarter of guards – Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Wesley Matthews – to slow down at least one of them. Attacking both of them defensively, particularly by getting them switched on LeBron is another tactic that the Lakers should explore to both tire them and get them in foul trouble.
It’s no secret that the Lakers’ offense can go through a lot of lulls, especially as they are still building chemistry between players due to the bevy of injuries in the regular season. Therefore, the Lakers are at their very best when they can force turnovers and missed shots and run in transition, using their combination of size and speed to get easy buckets. The missed shots will come if they can slow down Paul and Booker but forcing turnovers will be a problem.
The Suns took care of the basketball better than all but three teams in the regular season. They averaged just 13 turnovers per game in the three matchups against the Lakers with their high of 15 coming in the Lakers’ win. The Lakers have to be disciplined to not allow Paul to tear their defense apart while also doing enough to get into passing lanes and get fastbreak opportunities. The Suns’ best chance of winning the series is just that: take care of the ball and do enough defensively against an inconsistent Lakers’ offense. If the Lakers don’t knock them off that game plan, it will be a much more difficult series than they want.
The Lakers are favored by most people, including Vegas, to win the series. But don’t underestimate this Suns team, either. Paul has been here before and is an absolute gamer. Booker can go off at any point. Ayton, Bridges, Saric and the rest of their supporting cast play well within their roles and can step up in certain situations. Will their lack of playoff experience show? Perhaps. Will they have enough to counter LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Probably not. But the Lakers are inconsistent and battling through a lot of uncertainty; they have to take this series seriously from the start to advance to the second round.