Lakers vs. Suns playoff preview: A first for LeBron James, Chris Paul; Los Angeles’ edge in size, experience

Lakers vs. Suns playoff preview: A first for LeBron James, Chris Paul; Los Angeles' edge in size, experience

A Los Angeles Lakers-Phoenix Suns first-round series would have been a reasonable pre-season prediction. The Lakers, defending a championship and importing a number of high-profile players in the offseason, appeared likely to land somewhere near the top of the Western Conference standings. The Suns, fresh off an 8-0 bubble experience in Orlando and the acquisition of Chris Paul, looked primed to return to the playoffs in a lower seed. There even would have been a bit of poetry to it. Phoenix’s last playoff opponent prior to its decade-long postseason absence? The Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference finals.

We ended up getting that Lakers-Suns series in the first round after all … but not in the form we expected. The Suns turned out to be the regular-season juggernaut that came within a game of home-court advantage while the Lakers struggled due to a variety of injuries. They needed a miraculous comeback victory over the Golden State Warriors in the play-in round just to get to this point. Phoenix clinched its playoff spot almost a month ago.

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Yet the Las Vegas books have been very clear: The Lakers are the favorites in this series even without home-court advantage. The basketball world still believes even in a hobbled LeBron James, and as the series approaches, it’s worth diving into why that is and what the Suns will need to beat the odds and knock off the defending champs. 

Here’s everything you need to know about Lakers-Suns’ opening-round series.

No. 2 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers 

(Suns lead series 1-0)

  • Game 1: Suns 99, Lakers 90
  • Game 2: Tuesday, May 25, 10 p.m. ET | TV: TNT
  • Game 3: Thursday, May 27, 10 p.m. ET | TV: TNT
  • Game 4: Sunday, May 30, 3:30 p.m. ET | TV: ABC
  • Game 5*: Tuesday, June 1, TBD | TV: TBD
  • Game 6*: Thursday, June 3, TBD | TV: TBD
  • Game 7*: Saturday, June 5, TBD | TV: TBD

*If necessary

Featured Game | Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers

1. Are the Suns big enough for the Lakers?

Anthony Davis played against Phoenix, and Suns fans might want to avert their gaze rather than read this stat line: 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. It was a complete and utter decimation of Suns center Deandre Ayton. The Lakers won that game without James or Dennis Schroder. Both will be back for this game, but reinforcements aren’t coming for Phoenix. 

As badly as Davis beat Ayton in that matchup, he’s the only Suns physically equipped to handle him. Davis would turn Frank Kaminsky or Dario Saric into roadkill, which simultaneously disarms Phoenix’s strong small-ball bench lineups for the majority of this series. Miami tried letting Jae Crowder defend Davis in the Finals last season. It didn’t go well, but it might be Phoenix’s best hope against the Lakers. The Suns have no way of stopping Davis anyway. At least by throwing Crowder on him, they protect Ayton from unnecessary foul trouble. If Ayton goes to the bench, James can get to the rim with impunity. Phoenix allows opponents to shoot 65.5 percent in the restricted area. Only Denver is worse among playoff teams. 

Phoenix will try to neutralize the Lakers’ size by hunting Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell in pick-and-roll. With Chris Paul and Devin Booker, they can stagger their lineups so as never to give either a safe stretch to play through. The Lakers can checkmate Phoenix by sliding Davis over to center as they typically do late in playoff games. If Paul wants to try his luck against Davis in switches, the Lakers will happily indulge him. If Davis is playing center, Ayton has to guard him. He can’t chase Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Wesley Matthews around screens. 

There’s no good answer here for Phoenix. It just doesn’t have the personnel to effectively combat these jumbo lineups, and whatever Monty Williams does here is probably going to amount to little more than damage control. After what happened last time, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Phoenix double Davis frequently and make him the focal point of their defensive game plan. James is hobbled right now, and the Lakers aren’t exactly a reliable shooting team. Force LeBron to beat Mikal Bridges on an island. Force the Lakers to make their shots. If Phoenix can slow down Davis, it has a chance against everybody else. If it can’t? This series ends quickly.

2. Been there, done that

Literally every member of the Lakers roster has played in the playoffs. The bulk of them have done so in significant roles at some point or another, and six core members of last season’s championship team remain in place. A first-round series against a No. 2 seed isn’t going to faze them one bit. The same might not be able to be said for the young Suns. 

Ayton, Bridges, Booker, Cam Johnson and Jevon Carter will all make their postseason debuts on Sunday. Cameron Payne has played 68 playoff minutes in his career. Kaminsky and Saric combine for only around 500. Paul and Crowder are the only Suns with meaningful playoff experience, and Paul is in for a new experience here as well. Now in his 16th season, he will face longtime friend LeBron James in the postseason for the very first time. Paul is used to being the smartest player on the floor in the playoffs. LeBron knows all of his tricks. 

How much does this inexperience matter? It’s hard to say. Inexperienced players contribute in the postseason all of the time. Crowder just watched Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson lift the Heat into the Finals as rookies. That Miami team is an interesting analogy here, as Adebayo also entered the postseason with only 77 minutes of experience, and Jimmy Butler was the steady hand Phoenix hopes Paul will be. But aside from Crowder, the 2020 Heat also had Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic. There was a balanced mix of veterans and youngsters. Paul is largely on his own for these Suns. 

3. Trimming the rotations

The Lakers have 13 players fighting for minutes. Phoenix typically runs at least 10 deep and relies heavily on its bench lineups beating up on thinner opponents. The Lakers hardly qualify. In the playoffs, few teams do. Now is the time for rotations to get thinner. If this series goes the distance, expect Williams and Frank Vogel to have landed on their seven or eight best players for the bulk of their minutes.

We got a glimpse into who those players are for the Lakers when they took on Golden State on Wednesday. When the chips were down, Vogel landed on seven players: James, Davis, Caldwell-Pope, Matthews, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schroder. Even Schroder’s position was somewhat tenuous as he was benched for Caruso late in the game. The last lingering question here is the centers. For now, Drummond remains the starter. Marc Gasol outplayed him in the last Suns game. He’s outplayed him since his arrival, frankly, and the spacing and ball movement he provides are the bench’s best antidote against the offensive stagnancy that plagues this roster. Expect to see all three centers in Game 1. Vogel will start to trim as the series progresses. 

Phoenix’s situation is more complicated given the overlapping skill sets of many of its reserves. Without a traditional backup center, the Suns can’t really play big. Kaminsky and Saric overlap. Carter, Payne and Langston Galloway are all point-guard sized, though their skill sets vary wildly. Torrey Craig has been a regular-season revelation. The Lakers won’t even pretend to guard him from behind the arc. Aside from the starters and perhaps Johnson, Phoenix’s reserves all have exploitable weaknesses. Williams is going to have to pick his poison in that sense. Does he value defense enough to sacrifice spacing for Carter or Craig? Will he go all-offense with smaller bench units?

We’ll know more after Game 1, but this is another major Lakers advantage. They can adjust to the Suns far more easily than the Suns can adjust to them.