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Lakers may be more beatable at full strength than you thought

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Phoenix Suns play the Los Angeles Lakers starting Sunday

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Now that people all over the world have digested the fact that the defending NBA champion Lakers will face off against the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, they have decided to engage in a bit of cognitive dissonance.

How else can you explain the disregard for the past six months of game play, and decide these Lakers are the 2020 NBA Champs again while the Suns are the 2020 cute little upstarty bunch?

Even Vegas agrees. The Phoenix Suns are the first 2-seed to be an underdog in a playoff series against the 7-seed in the history of betting on the NBA.

“That’s fine, that’s their job,” Suns head coach Monty Williams says, with a shrug, of the dire predictions. “They don’t play, they don’t sweat, they don’t do what we do.”

Then Monty summed it up perfectly: “They didn’t predict we would win 51 games, so why would we listen to them now?”

Backup point guard Cameron Payne says it’s okay to be the underdog because it’s better to go in that way, no matter who’s predicting what. He knows the Suns need to play their absolute best to win a series over LeBron and Anthony Davis and the Lakers.

“We got to play hard and want it more.”

But this is THE LAKERS, right? These are the defending NBA champs, with a main guy in LeBron James who’s made the Finals the last NINE times he’s entered the playoffs.

How can anyone pick against these guys except diehard local fans and the team itself?

Well, let’s dive into the numbers a bit more. Every year is different, so you cannot just ignore what’s happened in the last six months when LeBron and Anthony Davis have started and finished the game.

For one thing, the Lakers are very good when those guys are healthy. They went 21-6 to start the year, then suffered lots of injuries before closing out the year 2-0 against non-playoff competition.

If we want any kind of analysis on the current season, in which half of their supporting rotation has changed since that Finals run, we can only really look at their 21-6 start. Just how good was it?

During the Lakers’ 21-6 start...

  • opponents had 47% win percentage at tipoff
  • 8 games versus teams with winning record at tipoff: 7-1
  • 11 games versus teams who finished with winning record: 7-4
  • Ranks: 10th on offense, 1st on defense

Let’s compare that to the Suns with their 51-21 record that included all their top players available for almost all the games. I could nitpick to remove the three games Booker missed and/or the two games Paul missed, but that’s not necessary.

During the Suns 51-21 season...

  • opponents had 50% win percentage (full season with balanced schedule, everyone’s opponents had a 50% win rate)
  • 38 games versus teams who finished with winning record: 27-11 (league best, no other team has more than 24 wins against winning teams)
  • Ranks: 7th on offense, 6th on defense

Seems like this season should at least be considered in the analysis of whether the Suns can beat the Lakers in the series. Especially one that starts with Phoenix playing the first two games at home, as well as the key 5th and 7th games at home.

I asked Devin Booker if he’s anticipated the feeling of the fans roaring on Sunday during the starters introductions and at the tipoff of his first home playoff game. Instead of talking about himself beyond it being “emotional”, he spent the majority of the time talking about the fans.

“It’s been a long 11 years for this city,” Booker said. “It’s going to be a relief.”