The sky isn’t falling. But the atmosphere is feeling a bit thicker today. Maybe it’s that tasty Los Angeles smog that has filled our lungs and increased the pre-playoff pressure. A clash with the purple and gold appears to be inevitable and if Sunday is any barometer of what to expect, strap in for an emotional rollercoaster ride comparable to the Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain come playoff time if we play LA.
If the season were to end today, the Phoenix Suns would have the #2 seed. The Lakers would have the #7 seed and would take part in a play in game (currently versus the #8 seeded Warriors, who Phoenix plays on Tuesday). Yes, the reward for a decade of playoff-less basketball would be LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers. Hip, hip?
The Suns loss on Sunday night in Los Angeles at the hands of the Lakers left many of us wondering what to expect if we were to face the reigning NBA Champions come playoff time. The team might have a 38-30 record, but their two superstars have only played in 25 games together for a total 554 minutes. The Lakers are a +138 in those minutes.
It is a hot topic of debate currently. Do you want to face the Lakers? If so, when in the march to a championship is the ideal time to clash with LA?
Following the performance on Sunday, some more questions have been raised. Let’s talk about!
Did it Matter?
Some could argue that losing to the Lakers, in the grand scheme of the playoff picture, was actually the right move for Phoenix on Sunday. The Lakers trail Portland by one game for the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The possibility exists that the Lakers could leapfrog the Trail Blazers in an effort to avoid the play in game and a win against Phoenix helped them.
Looking at the final games for each team:
- Lakers: vs. Knicks, vs. Rockets, @ Pacers, @ Pelicans
- Trail Blazers: vs. Rockets, @ Jazz, @ Suns, vs. Nuggets
It is safe to say that the road to #6 is tougher for Portland. The combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents is .580. The Lakers, conversely, face teams that have won .428 of their games this season. Advantage LA.
The Suns still have a say in the conversation as they host Portland on Thursday for their last home game of the season. Show up and get loud Planet Orange! The implications of that game will be paramount. Beating the Blazers could ensure that they do not have to face the Lakers in Round 1.
That being said, why would Monty Williams show any of his cards to a Los Angeles team that they might play in the first round? The offense was rather blah on Sunday. The sets were not overly complicated. The team did not appeared locked in to winning. They were sloppy.
Granted, you do not want Phoenix “taking games off” or entering a matchup “not locked in”. That is a delicate tightrope to walk and you don’t want to fall off into the pit of “we lost what made us special because we took a couple games off”. Yet after going down big early, Phoenix did not seem to run their high elbow jumpers, which are a high efficiency shot for them, with regularity.
You can credit the defense of the Lakers — it felt as if Devin Booker had no space to operate in whatsoever — and their need to win the game to avoid a play in.
Speaking of Devin Booker...
Will Devin Booker rise the occasion?
We want Devin to be the superstar we believe he is. The question still remains, when the chips are on the table, will he rise to the occasion?
Booker has been the face of this franchise for half of a decade now. Yet outside of a few games in the Orlando Bubble — games in which the Suns weren’t receiving the best shot from teams re-conditioning and resting players for their playoff runs — we have yet to see him play truly meaningful minutes. His current playoff section on Basketball-Reference does not exist.
We knew that entering the final stretch of this season, the Suns faced the difficult task of navigating quality competition with the majority of those games taking place away from home. 12 of their 16 games are on the road. 14 of their opponents are either playoff bound or play in game bound. There are not many nights off these days.
For players like Devin Booker, this the latest in the season he has had to play minutes that meant something, both to the Suns and to the teams they are playing. Booker is facing a new level of fatigue he has never felt.
Since the Milwaukee Bucks game on April 19, Devin Booker is leading the Suns in usage rate at 31.4%. That is 8th highest in the NBA for players who’ve played more than 5 games during that span. During that span Booker has earned a Player of the Week, averaged 25.8 points on 48.3/28.3/86.4 splits. Positive signs.
The challenge of double teams and less-than-ideal switches lies ahead for Booker. One observation I had versus the Knicks was how New York was purposefully switching to get Booker defending Julius Randle. The Lakers did the same with Anthony Davis last night. Stressing Booker on defense, tiring his legs, will hurt his offense. He has a 120.7 defensive rating in the past 11 games.
The Lakers’ length on defense will be a challenge that Booker will have to overcome if they face Los Angeles in the postseason.
I respect that Booker adjusted his method of attack. When the Lakers made it damn near impossible for him to convert effort into points, he forced himself to the free throw line. His 13 attempts last night were tied for his second most on the season (14 against the Clippers on April 8). This is the sign of a cerebral scorer. Let’s hope it translates to the playoffs.
I am not reading too much into Sunday’s 5-for-14 shooting performance. Again, I’m not sure how much offensive strategy was revealed by Phoenix, especially considering they were down early and in foul trouble.
Speaking of foul trouble...
Will the Suns interior survive?
At the top of my reasoning for wanting to avoid the Lakers in the playoffs — especially in the first round — is our lack of interior depth. When properly exploited, it can leave the Suns defenseless on the interior.
The Lakers exploited that on Sunday night reminding us that the need for a big could reaer it’s head in the postseason.
James Jones has been pretty spot on with most moves he’s made. It’s the move he didn’t make that I fear could hurt the Suns. Not adding a big could cost them in the playoffs with Saric’s disappearing act.— Espo (@Espo) May 10, 2021
With 7:41 left in the first quarter, Deandre Ayton was hit with his second foul. Initiate Kaminsky protocol. The Lakers responded with a 4’ floating drive by Anthony Davis followed by a dunk.
The lack of big depth is the Achilles heel of this team. When you play the Lakers — a team full of size — it is exposed. Andre Drummond. Marc Gasol. Anthony Davis. Montrezl Harrell. LeBron James. Los Angeles has 7 players who are 6’9” or taller. Phoenix has 4.
The Suns rebounding was dormant. The Lakers out-rebounded the Suns 41 to 32. Los Angeles has 14 offensive rebounds. Phoenix had 3. The one-and-done possession's negated any opportunity to come all of the way back. The Suns shot 44.4% from deep, which will be a necessity against the Lakers, and still couldn’t over their deficit.
Dario Saric, Torrey Craig, Frank Kaminsky, will be shredded like a julienne salad against the Lakers come playoff time. Monty Williams will have to make adjustments, most notably to defensive positioning, and the DTF Trio (ooooh...I like this nickname I have stumbled upon) will have to increase their efforts on the boards if the Suns stand a chance.
The Lakers are the current NBA Champions. They have been bobbing in the lake like a wounded duck, waiting for the opportunity to show the NBA that they can fly. I’d love to be the duck hunter to take them out. It will be a challenge.
I take Sunday’s 13-point loss as a footnote in a season that has been magical for Phoenix. It raises questions, but it is not the entire story. We knew that Anthony Davis would be a problem (the Suns are 0-1 against him now on the season). We know there are more questions that need to be answered if the opportunity presents itself.
What we don’t know is how this last week of the season will play out and who the Suns will face in the first round. Until we know the answers to those questions, put this game in a nice little box and put it on the shelf. All that will matter come playoff time is the next game.