The Los Angeles Lakers are likely to be the Phoenix Suns’ top threat in the Western Conference this season. But their two preseason meetings against each other certainly didn’t feel like it.
The Suns, who won the West last season and advanced to their first NBA Finals since 1992-93, demolished Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 6, and Sunday, defeating the Lakers 117-105 and 123-94. It was Phoenix’s two largest wins of the preseason, as it lost 117-106 to the Sacramento Kings on Oct. 4 and will face the Portland Trail Blazers in its final preseason contest on Wednesday.
The Suns last season were one of the NBA’s most efficient teams, being one of four squads to rank among the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Their chemistry was well-renowned throughout the league, as several of their players — including starting point guard Chris Paul — and other stars around the association recognized their consistent team play.
That was the difference between the Suns and the Lakers in their two preseason games, and it will have to be for Phoenix to win its second consecutive Western Conference title this season.
Granted, Lakers superstar forward LeBron James and point guard Russell Westbrook were not available for the team’s preseason contest against the Suns last Wednesday. But Phoenix still obliterated Los Angeles.
The Suns led by as many as 31 and controlled the pace throughout the game. Phoenix assisted 31 of its 44 made shots (70.4 percent) and shot 44.4 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from the 3-point line.
In comparison, Los Angeles shot 46.4 percent from the field, assisted 24 of its 39 made shots and made 12-of-34 3-point attempts. Now, I know it’s going to take some time for this Lakers team to come together. But make no mistake — the Suns are a better team, just as they were in the playoffs.
We know this already because of their continuity — the Suns had the highest roster retention rate from last season — but their offensive sets were more crisp and refined than the Lakers’. This two-man game with Paul and starting center Deandre Ayton was a perfect example for that.
Again, the Lakers didn’t have James, so their floor spacing was not as sharp as it could have been. But compare their two-man game here with backup guard Malik Monk and Davis. It came after a broken set late in the shot clock in which Davis made a difficult shot.
The Lakers were also stagnant as a group and had little-to-no weak side actions on set plays. In this video, Los Angeles backup guard Kendrick Nunn is cut off by Suns backup guard Landry Shamet at the free-throw line, yet Los Angeles backup forward Kent Bazemore misses an opportunity to back-cut on Phoenix backup forward Cameron Johnson. Monk, Bazemore and Lakers backup guard Talen Horton-Tucker do not interchange once the set flips to a pick-and-roll with Lakers center Deandre Jordan, creating a turnover opportunity finished by Johnson.
Again, compare this to the Suns’ action just a minute later. Los Angeles cuts off two dribble hand-off opportunities for Phoenix, yet Suns backup center JaVale McGee still finds backup forward Abdel Nader for a left-handed finish. It’s important to never stop moving on any given play.
Los Angeles’ deep reserves entered during the fourth quarter, so there’s not much to judge from an execution standpoint. But again, there was a lot of crowding here, and simultaneous cuts from Monk and backup guard Austin Reaves disallow Horton-Tucker from making a cleaner pass at the rim.
The Suns don’t convert on this offensive possession, but backup guard Elfrid Payton gets a clean look off a ‘horns’ set, in which backup forward Frank Kaminsky sets a screen for backup forward Jalen Smith with backup wings Chasson Randle and Chandler Hutchinson in the corners. If Payton didn’t take the shot, he also had Smith and Hutchinson wide open for 3-point attempts, along with Kaminsky holding a mismatch against Nunn in his drive.
Westbrook was back for this game, so we were able to see how the Lakers look near full strength. Still, the Suns crushed them.
Phoenix won the contest, 123-94, and led by as many as 30. Even with Westbrook, Los Angeles made just 32-of-85 (37.6 percent) of its field-goal attempts, had 23 turnovers — nine of which came from Westbrook — and a 15-of-42 clip (35.7 percent) from 3-point range.
Meanwhile, the Suns had resounding offensive success (see: Ayton’s 3-pointer).
Not only did Phoenix’s big man stretch his range, all 14 of the Suns’ players who appeared in the game scored, led by Paul with 15. The Suns assisted 26 of their 47 made shots, shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 9-of-29 (31.0 percent) from 3-point range.
I loved this set early in the third quarter. A pindown screen from Ayton turns into a pick-and-roll for starting forward Mikal Bridges, leading to a clear dive for Ayton. Jordan elects to stay in drop coverage and Bridges hits an open shot.
However, check the weakside of the action. This play very easily could have turned into an open 3-pointer for Paul, as Crowder set a great flare screen to free him in the corner.
Then, we saw this play multiple times throughout the postseason. Straight dive to the rim from Ayton and Paul leads him with a perfect pass.
And then, can we get a, ‘Heck yeah,’ or point-five offense? The ball movement here was impeccable.
In contrast, we saw plenty of isolation plays for the Lakers. It’s feasible this will be their offensive dynamic at least early in the season, given there’s so many new pieces and they’re not yet connected.
I’m not saying this will determine the Western Conference. But what’s clear is this — the Suns have a team, and the Lakers do not yet. Let’s see how that progresses as the regular season gets going soon.