This year is a tale of two seasons for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, who will meet in the first round Sunday afternoon. On one hand, the Suns had a successful season, finishing 51-21 and earning themselves as the second seed. On the other hand, the Lakers have struggled with a lack of chemistry due to injuries, causing them to earn a trip to the play-in tournament.
The reigning champs did edge out the Golden State Warriors with a clutch, go-ahead three-point shot by LeBron James. Now the veteran team will hit the road to take on Phoenix for the 13th playoff meeting between the two teams. History favors Los Angeles, as they won eight of the 12 series against their Pacific Division (yes there’s divisions in basketball) rival. However, Phoenix is 4-2 in their last few matchups after the Lakers won the first six.
Regardless if you’re a Suns, Lakers, or overall basketball fan, there is no doubt that this will be an intriguing series to watch.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns
The Lakers’ frontcourt is arguably one of the best in the NBA, led by James and Anthony Davis. Newly-acquired Andre Drummond is the starting center, but the most interesting part of the team’s roster is their depth at the center/post positions. In other words, the Lakers’ rotations and lineups are match-ups based, which is actually not a terrible problem to have. Los Angeles won the title last season due to solid performances from the dynamic duo of James and Davis.
However, this season has been harder due to their inability to stay healthy all year (the Lakers have more starting lineups than any other team at 25). Despite the Suns’ record, their size and speed actually match well to the Lakers, so expect them to rotate Drummond and Marc Gasol in and out, with Davis at the center in the fourth quarter. Kyle Kuzma will also play a huge role on both sides of the ball.
The Suns’ frontcourt is led by Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder with Cameron Johnson and Frank Kaminsky rotating in. Ayton is talented on both sides of the ball and while he averaged 14.4 points in the regular season, that is not enough in the playoffs, especially against an experienced Lakers’ roster. Crowder is familiar with the Lakers’ style of play after seeing them in last year’s finals as a member of the Miami Heat, so he will certainly help the young Suns out. Ayton will essentially be the X-factor of the series because while he has the size to play solid defense, he has to show it. When healthy, the Lakers have shown they can do serious damage in the pick-and-roll (Gasol will likely be key in this series), so the Suns have to step up.
Advantage: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ backcourt has been an interesting one this season. Dennis Schröder was their most intriguing offseason signing due to his grit, quickness, and scrappy play on defense. However, he will be their X-factor simply due to his consistency. He averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game but missed over two weeks of action due to health and safety protocols. He also had his worse performance as a Laker in their play-in battle against the Golden State Warriors despite scoring 13 points.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joins Schröder in the backcourt and has been heating up as of late, shooting 41 percent from behind the arc. Both players will be crucial in this series because they will have a big challenge of guarding an experienced floor general in Chris Paul and an elite scorer in Devin Booker. Alex Caruso will also be in the rotation likely guarding Paul due to his superior lockdown defense.
Phoenix arguably has one of the most dangerous backcourt in the NBA. Paul is the leader, but Booker is the anchor on the Suns’ ship. Paul finished third in the league in the assists category, averaging 8.9 per game. Booker has shown why he is a two-time All-Star: he can score from any area on the court, is a solid rebounder, and plays good help defense. Expect Caruso and veteran Wesley Matthews to rotate and defend Booker. Yes, defense wins championships, but the Suns have the stronger backcourt and Paul was clearly the missing puzzle piece in Phoenix.
Advantage: Phoenix Suns
On paper, the Lakers have a pretty solid and deep bench with Monrezl Harrell, Gasol, Kuzma, Matthews, and Caruso. Even second-year man Talen Horton-Tucker has stepped up for the Lakers, especially when James, Schröder, and Caruso were all out due to injury and health protocols. However, do not expect to see him play critical minutes due to his inexperience and inability to protect the ball in crunch time. Their bench has executed well offensively, leading the league in field goal percentage (48.3 percent) and finishing second in rebounding. They will be crucial against a quick Suns’ team.
The Suns’ bench is also solid with Cameron Payne, Torrey Craig, Johnson, and Kaminsky. They are all solid defenders who are also dangerous behind the arc. Their bench was sixth in three-point shooting at 37.6 percent. Craig and Johnson will rotate with Crowder to try and defend James, while Payne will look to score with his solid sharp-shooting skills. Because Kaminsky can also shoot, expect the Suns to utilize him a bit more than their previous matchup against the Lakers to drive a player like Drummond or Harrell out and open those lanes for their guards to cut. Both teams have solid bench pieces, but the Lakers are simply too experienced for the Suns.
Advantage: Los Angeles Lakers
Coaching and Intangibles
Laker fans have constantly question Frank Vogel’s rotations all season, especially when they continued to fall in the rankings. Vogel is known across the league as a defensive-minded coach (the Lakers are the No.1 ranked defense in the NBA). However, he has shown to make solid adjustments throughout a series. Regardless of the talent you have on your roster, it is not an easy task to win the Finals in your first year with the team. Defense wins championships and it is almost certain that Vogel will break down each film session and adjust to the Suns’ game plan.
Monty Williams has done a fantastic job rebuilding the Suns’ roster and brand across the league, putting Phoenix back on the map as a playoff contender in his second year as their head coach. He will be a Coach of the Year candidate and has shown why: he makes the right moves and adjusts his rotations fairly quickly unlike Vogel. Williams’ coaching record may be under.500 (258-281), but numbers don’t always tell the truth. The Suns’ front office took rebuilding seriously and added vets such as Paul and Crowder to lead a young team. This will be an entertaining coaching battle, but Vogel’s experience in the playoffs will outshine Williams in this series.
Advantage: Los Angeles Lakers
Final Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers in Six
The Suns are entering the playoffs with a league-best 26-11 record against playoff teams. They are quick, efficient on both sides of the ball, scrappy, and know how to score. However, they do not have what the Lakers possess: playoff experience. James does not historically perform well on Game 1 matchups and certainly will not with a lingering high ankle injury. Phoenix finally plays a postseason game for the first time since 2010 despite finishing undefeated in last season’s Orlando bubble. Paul and James will finally meet for the first time in the playoffs. James Jones also never lost a series against the Lakers.
However, that streak will end in this series.
If you think about it, this matchup is an upset for the Suns or Lakers either way. The Suns will come out with all hands on deck, but Paul and Crowder’s playoff experience will not be enough. James alone is entering his 261st playoff game. A majority of the Lakers’ roster have all played in double-digit postseason games. While this series will be exciting to watch, the Lakers will ultimately win and advance on their quest for Ring 18 as a seventh seed.
Embed from Getty Images