Congratulations, Phoenix Suns! Your gamble to get Chris Paul paid off, as you just earned the two-seed in the Western Conference by putting admirable efforts night in and night out on both ends of the floor. For your reward, you get the first Western Conference team that earned a playoff berth from the play-in tournament, the measly seven seed! Lemme just do a quick Google search to see what team that is and … oh my dear lord.
All jokes aside, Suns-Lakers is a wonderful matchup of two of the best teams in the league, and in a way, they’re perfect barometers for one another. For L.A., this is a way to see if they really are championship contenders despite their laundry list of injuries by having to take down a legitimately excellent Suns team. For Phoenix, what better way to know for sure if they’re for real than a first-round tilt with the defending champs?
The Suns lead the season series here, 2-1, and there really is no reason for them to not be confident. The Lakers, of course, are always confident. How could anyone not be excited for this one?
Matchup To Watch
There’s no reason to get cute and say this is anything other than alpha dogs vs. alpha dogs. The Lakers’ top-two players, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, haven’t just been here before, they’re entering this postseason as the defending champs. James has proven, time and time again, that he’s the final boss at the end of the video game you have to beat. Davis showed in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble that he is not going to wilt under the brightest lights. They have rings (James, obviously, has way more of them), and winning the Larry O’Brien trophy means snatching it away from these two.
As for Phoenix, their top dudes are … not that. Chris Paul, for all the things that he has achieved in his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, has always seen his teams come up short in the postseason. Devin Booker gets a ton of love from everyone — players, coaches, fans, the media — but is new to this stage. They will be underdogs in this series despite the fact that the Suns were straight up better than the Lakers this year.
These games very well could end up being close. L.A. grinds games to dust and Paul is as good as it gets at being in constant control of everything when those situations come about. When those moments come about, stars need to come up big. The team whose stars are able to get the job done will win this series. It’s the simplest thing on earth, but basketball is not always complex. This is an example of that.
Can the Lakers get anything out of the Andre Drummond/Marc Gasol/Montrezl Harrell trio? Davis does not like playing center, which is pretty well-documented by this point. The issue is he is so clearly their best center that playing anyone else there is a step down.
As a result, Montdrec Hasolond (ok it’s a work in progress) have to give them enough on both ends of the floor that they can get away with saving AD from the physical toll that comes from playing the position, at least until we get to the later rounds of the playoffs. Deandre Ayton is a reliably solid player on both ends of the floor, while Dario Saric is a nice backup big. They aren’t guys who will single-handedly win games, but they’re good enough that if the Lakers have absolutely nothing in the frontcourt, they can really tilt things in Phoenix’s direction.
It doesn’t help that every member of that group has some questions to answer. Drummond has not been great since joining L.A., Gasol has drawn the ire of Lakers fans this year, and Harrell got played off the floor as a member of the Clippers last year. We know what James will give the Lakers, we know what Davis will give them, and their role players on the perimeter, at the bare minimum, will compete every single night. A major feather in their cap will come if their frontcourt can produce, too.
Stat To Know
The Suns are quite efficient on offense. The Lakers are really good at keeping teams from scoring on defense. There is very much a styles make fights element to this series, and the winning team will assuredly be the one that is able to win that battle.
Phoenix’s offense is second in field goal percentage, second in two-point field goal percentage, third in effective field goal percentage, and seventh in three-point field goal percentage. Paul and Booker are both very, very good at getting guys looks, and the various dudes in their rotation understand to take the ones they’re good at making. Los Angeles’ defense, meanwhile, is in the top-10 of all those categories, too — respectively, they are eighth, ninth, fifth, and fourth. Through all of their issues this year, L.A. has stuck to its guns and been a pain in the you-know-what to score against.