For the first time in over 30 years, a No. 7 seed is favored over a No. 2 seed in an NBA first-round series.
The Lakers aren’t just any No. 7 seed, though. The defending champions are arguably the best No. 7 seed ever. They were the No. 2 seed before Anthony Davis’ right calf strain on Feb. 14. They were still the No. 2 seed before LeBron James’ high right ankle sprain on March 20.
The injuries to their two best players put Los Angeles in the bottom half of the playoff bracket. Whoever caught them in Round 1 was going to be at a disadvantage, leading to multiple teams clamoring to tank their way out of the No. 2 seed.
Alas, Phoenix got the unfortunate draw and is matched up with the Lakers, who, for multiple reasons, are not a good matchup for the Suns.
Let’s get into the breakdown of the series.
Lakers question: How does L.A. adjust against Phoenix’s guards in the pick-and-roll?
The Lakers have been the best defensive team in the league for the past two seasons. It is the one aspect of the game that can not fall into a slump. And they will surely rely on it this series against the lethal offense of the Suns, particularly their backcourt duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Phoenix presents a unique challenge for the Lakers’ base pick-and-roll coverages. In the most basic sense, the Lakers, like most teams in the league, prefer to protect the 3-point line and the paint, the two most efficient scoring areas in basketball. That sometimes comes at the expense of midrange jumpers, which are the least-efficient shot, with a few exceptions.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker are two of those exceptions. They are excellent midrange shooters, to the point that they will carve up the Lakers if Los Angeles doesn’t adjust and play higher in its coverages.
“It’s a difference for our team because we like to allow guys to play in the midrange, and we like to take away the paint and the 3s knowing that the league has become a 3-point shooting league,” Davis said. “So we try to take that away. But this team thrives on midrange field goals, so it’s a little different for us, but we know we can do it. We can adjust, for sure.”
The Suns’ midrange offense starts with Paul, who has been attacking big men in pick-and-rolls for over a decade. He’s shooting 51.6 percent on midrange jumpers this season, per NBA.com.
Booker presents similar challenges to Paul, but he is much bigger and more physical in initiating contact to create separation. His strength belies his frame. He’s shooting 48.6 percent on midrange jumpers this season, another elite mark.
The Lakers can’t drop or catch-hedge. They need to blitz, trap and show high. They can’t let Paul or Booker get comfortable. They need to throw different looks at them — different on-ball defenders, different points of pressure and trapping, different rotations. Make Phoenix’s wings and bigs beat them off the dribble or with their passing.
During the regular season matchups the Suns carved up the Lakers, particularly the slow footed bigs of Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol when the Suns forced the switch. But when Davis was the man to switch out on both Paul and Booker, things were different.
Booker and Paul have the ballhandling, speed and footwork to create separation from Davis, of course, but his length can be overwhelming, especially in tight quarters. He is an elite defender both inside and on the perimeter. His foot work and length allows him to disrupt any shot Paul and even Booker will take when the switch occurs. Something Gasol and Drummond are not capable of doing.
So is the answer to simply play Davis at the 5 for this series? Yeah maybe, but don’t expect Frank Vogel to fully commit to dropping his bigs out the rotation. The Lakers are built on simply being bigger than their opponents. So the Drummonds and Gasol’s will get their court time, just not long stretches and in crunch time. Expect more Kuzma/Morris/LeBron playing the 4 next to Davis at the 5 for this series.
Suns question: How to defend James and Davis?
I feel like this is every teams unanswerable question when matches duo in a 7 game series with the Lakers. And there has been no blueprint yet made on how to stop or even slow down James and Davis. But the Suns will need to craft one up quick if they want to win the series.
The Suns are at a disadvantage in this series not only because the Lakers have the two best players, which typically is a harbinger for a series victory, but also because the Lakers’ strengths — the size, skill and physicality of their frontcourt — are weaknesses for the Suns.
The Suns are built for the modern NBA. They can match up well with the Clippers, Jazz, Nets and Bucks — teams that often deploy one true big with multiple wing scorers. They have the personnel to defend wings and guards.
But the Lakers are an exception, often playing two 7-footers and a giant small forward in either James or Kyle Kuzma. When Los Angeles downsizes, it’s still huge, with Davis and James as big as or bigger than most centers and power forwards, respectively.
Their forward spots are occupied by the likes of Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dario Saric and Torrey Craig. None of those players can defend Davis one-on-one without help. Crowder, Bridges and Craig can potentially hang with a hobbled James. But a healthy James? No shot.
In the only game he played against the Suns, James scored 38 points, his second-highest total of the season, on 16-of-24 shooting. In the only game he played against the Suns, Davis scored 42 points, his season high, on 13-of-27 shooting.
Both players made several difficult shots, though that’s also part of their game, but the process by which they got their shots — Davis punishing single and double coverages, and James blasting his way to the rim — was standard for how the Lakers offense operates.
When the Lakers went downhill, there wasn’t much resistance. Ayton is a good rim protector statistically, but the Lakers clearly aren’t afraid of him.
James is a matchup nightmare because of who he is, but Davis is the more concerning of the two for the Suns.
The Suns don’t have a defender who can stick with him by themselves. Davis was able to torch the Suns defense in his lone matchup, largely turning and shooting over Suns wing defenders or driving and rising up over them.
This pick-and-pop sequence is too easy for Davis — and was common in the matchup. It’s unclear if he can even see a Suns defender as he’s shooting.
Those were just regular season games, but the scoring out pours by the Lakers stars was just a preview of what will happen this series.
Even when the Suns had a good defensive effort or stint on Davis or James, they faced another issue, securing the defensive board. The Lakers have the personnel — their wings and guards included — to pound the Suns on the offensive glass and put pressure on their defense by driving and cutting into space. It happened in every matchup this season and the Suns don’t have an answer for it.
“They’re one of the biggest teams we’re going to play against,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Friday. “… We understand that we have to be unbelievably physical keeping them off the boards.”
Lakers’ X-factor: KCP and Caruso
Caldwell-Pope will draw the Booker assignment, which is going to be key to slowing down the Suns’ red-hot offense. Neutralize Booker, or at least slow him down, and the Suns offense likely struggles to generate enough points in a half-court, grind-it-out setting. Booker is the Suns player most likely to go shot for shot against James or Davis.
KCP is more than capable of being that game long defender on Booker. His size and quickness is a could combination and the Lakers best bet to take the game long assignment.
But the Lakers secret weapon, Alex Caruso will be just as important. He will play his normal role of disruptor, energy boost, and relentless defensive attack. I expect a lot of Caruso on Booker and Paul, likely in the second half, giving KCP a breather after working all the first half. The change of defensive approaches and speeds the two play at can and needs to disrupt Booker and Paul.
“It’s going to be a group effort,” Vogel said. “Not just with multiple guys being on Devin, but how attentive our bigs are. They have to win as many battles as the guy on the ball. … We just got to make sure that we have that same type of performance against really both Chris Paul and Book and all their other guys that come off screens. Cam Payne has been playing really well for them. But our bigs did a really good job against CP.”
Caldwell-Pope also is an X-factor because of the other end of the floor. The Suns are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, their primary advantage over the Lakers. Los Angeles doesn’t need to drastically change its offensive approach, but there will be instances — be it games, quarters or stretches — when the Lakers will need to take and make 3s to keep up with the Suns.
Caldwell-Pope is the Lakers’ best 3-point shooter. He’s more of a medium-volume shooter, but his shooting is necessary in a shootout.
Suns’ X-factor: Deandre Ayton
Ayton is the poster boy for the Suns’ playoff inexperience, which is going to be a forced narrative in this series. It might matter. It might not. But it’s going to be discussed.
Like most players on the Suns, Ayton is making his first playoff appearance.
As a young big going up against one of the most paint-heavy teams in the league, with multiple quality finishers, Ayton’s defensive skills and desire are going to be tested.
He’s arguably the most important Sun, if only because he’s the only 7-footer with a chance to physically impose his will against the Lakers’ frontline. As aforementioned, Ayton did very little to disrupt James and Davis in the matchups each played. It was something of a layup line with him on the floor, which can’t be the case for Phoenix to win this series.
He needs to be the rim protector he is capable of being, while also staying out of foul trouble. The Lakers are going to target Ayton and try to get him in foul trouble. If Ayton gets in early foul trouble in any game, just hand the Lakers the W. Without his presence on the court, the Suns have no shot.
Davis is obviously the toughest center to match up with, but the Lakers’ other three centers present their own problems.
Drummond can push Ayton around, although the Lakers should refrain from posting him up unless he has a mismatch against a guard or is right under the rim.
Gasol will space the floor, making room for driving lanes.
If Montrezl Harrell plays, it should only be in non-Ayton minutes or alongside Gasol or Davis, as Ayton was able to win the Harrell matchup earlier in the season in Los Angeles in a game Harrell started.
The Lakers can throw different looks at Ayton. This is about as tough as it gets for a playoff debut. Ayton’s performance, the good and the bad, could be the difference between this series being close and a rout.
As James said at Friday’s practice, the Suns deserve respect. They have two All-NBA candidates in Paul and Booker. Paul is one of the best point guards ever and able to control a playoff series. Booker can go off for 40 points in any game. Ayton has developed into a quality, promising young center.
Phoenix is top six in offense and defense. In a way, it is a better defensive version of Portland.
The Suns’ issue is that their weaknesses align with the Lakers’ strengths. The Lakers are bigger, longer, stronger. Their defensive strength (perimeter defender) matches up with the Suns’ offensive strength (perimeter scoring and shooting). The Lakers should control the paint on both ends. There is no ideal matchup, from Phoenix’s perspective, against Davis and James.
The Suns have the potential to knock down an avalanche of 3s in a game, a level of shooting the Lakers can’t keep up with. The Suns’ best bet is to force the Lakers to play faster than they’re comfortable with — an approach Paul historically doesn’t prefer — and to take as many 3s as they can. Despite being the higher seed, they need to approach the series with underdog tactics.
Phoenix is capable of making this a long series, but they need the stars to align if they want to win it. And I just don’t see everything going right for the Suns with everything going sour for the Lakers.
They would have probably been favored in almost any other first-round matchup.
But not against the Lakers. Not against LeBron and AD. It won’t be easy, but Los Angeles advances.
Lakers in 5.