The Suns, who finished with the second-best record in the West, will make their first postseason appearance since 2009-10 against the seventh-seeded Lakers, who won the NBA championship last season. Los Angeles defeated the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in their play-in game on Wednesday to advance to face the Suns.
Ahead of Sunday’s game, we caught up with Silver Screen and Roll beat writer and editor-in-chief Harrison Faigen about the latest on the Lakers, including the health status of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles’ potential matchups against the Suns and his prediction to win the series. Phoenix went 2-1 against the Lakers during the regular season, though Los Angeles was not fully healthy for any of those games.
Ahead of Game 1, here’s what Faigen had to say about the matchup.
1. What were your biggest takeaways from the Lakers’ play-in win over the Warriors on Wednesday?
I think that game may have woken the Lakers up. They seemed to be galvanized by halftime speeches from veterans Markieff Morris and Jared Dudley and came out in the second half ready to focus with the necessary intensity to take that game. Their defense was good for most of the night, but their offensive execution and overall engagement went up in the second half. I think for a team that hasn’t had a lot of time to build cohesion and chemistry, it was a potentially big moment to band together and show how good it can be when it turns it on.
2. LeBron James appeared to be returning to form from his high ankle sprain before tweaking it in the Lakers’ regular-season finale against the Pelicans. On Wednesday, it looked like he had some issues imposing his will in the first half before finding a rhythm in the second. How close would you say he is to 100 percent, and how big of a concern is his ankle entering this series?
I think his ankle is the No. 1 concern for the Lakers in this series. Now, for what it’s worth — and despite reports to the contrary — he has said he’s fine, but as I wrote in that story, I wouldn’t expect him to put a target on any of his limbs before a series against Jae Crowder.
I’m not a doctor, but by the eye test, I don’t think he has his usual pop right now. I think he has enough to play and make a difference against the Suns, but I definitely don’t think he’s 100 percent. But to be fair, who in the NBA is at this point? Everyone is dealing with bumps and bruises. Maybe his are worse than most and maybe they’re not, but we won’t really know until he takes the floor for this series.
3. How healthy is Anthony Davis entering this series?
Just like LeBron, AD has continually maintained that he’s fine. Still, watching him against the Warriors, he really did seem to need the team to go small to get the extra space necessary to make a difference offensively. How much of that is his ongoing, up-and-down fit with Drummond and Montrezl Harrell vs. how much of it is health-related is unknowable, but I don’t think he’s at 100 percent either. But again, at this point in the season, who is? Barring their condition worsening, I think the Lakers have enough to get it done in the first round.
4. We saw the Lakers start Davis and Andre Drummond together versus the Warriors before sliding Davis to the five extensively in the third quarter. What frontcourt combinations do you expect the Lakers to use against the Suns?
Ha! As you can tell by the answer above, I’m addressing these in order, but I’m glad you noticed that switch flip too. I would expect the Lakers to start the series big. Frank Vogel’s tendency has been to force teams to make the Lakers adjust, not preemptively change their identity to match up with another team. And as we saw the last time L.A. played against Phoenix, the Davis/Drummond frontcourt can have success against the Suns.
As far as their backup options, however, I would expect to see more of Davis at the five at times, and my guess is they’ll give Montrezl Harrell a look first as their primary backup center. I think the Suns are small enough for Harrell to potentially work against second units, although you obviously worry about his defense against a basketball genius like Chris Paul. Marc Gasol may replace him if they decide they need more spacing or defense, or they may just go to AD at the five as their main backup like last postseason if they decide they need to speed/space things up.
5. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Lakers are the first No. 7 seed in over 30 years to be favored against a second-seeded team, the Suns. Do you think that is fair, and if so, why?
I do. I think most of the time people are going to defer to the defending champs, and the Lakers are far from a normal seventh seed. I’m not saying the Suns can’t surprise me and win this series, but on paper they don’t seem to have great matchups for LeBron or AD, which would seem to be prerequisites to stopping this team if they can stay healthy.
6. What do you think will be the Lakers’ biggest keys to success in the first round?
Health is obviously No. 1. If LeBron or AD get worse, this series could go downhill fast. Schematically, I’m also curious to see what their gameplan is to slow down Devin Booker. In Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Wesley Matthews, they have two players well equipped to chase him around, but he is definitely the star I fear most in this series.
7. Which players will be most important for the Lakers in this series besides LeBron and AD?
I mentioned the two guards, but I think in terms of importance, how much Dennis Schröder and Alex Caruso can make life hell on Chris Paul is the most important non-health swing factor in this series. The Lakers would seem to have the defensive personnel to make him work hard on offense. Frank Vogel is a defensive scheme genius and LeBron James is surely going to try and attack him on defense in guard-wing PnRs with Caruso. I love Chris Paul’s game and think the discourse around his playoff “failures” are usually lazy and contextless, but I just feel like the Lakers have as good of options as possible here.
And if the Lakers can cut off the head of the snake — or at least slow it down — I think they’ll be able to take this series fairly handily.
8. Who do you think will win this series, and in how many games?
I know my boss is a rabid Bright Side reader, so I’m going Suns in four, obviously.
No, but in all seriousness, as you can tell by my answers, I’m fairly confident the Lakers can take this series. In my official pick for SB Nation, I took them in five games. I’m not saying the Suns can’t win, I just don’t like their matchups with the Lakers’ stars, and in the playoffs that is mostly what matters as long as those stars can be at like at least 80-90% effectiveness.
If it’s any solace, I feel bad that the Suns have to play the Lakers just because the Nuggets and Clippers so blatantly ducked this matchup. It’s a little unfair, and maybe the Suns make this prediction look really dumb, but I really like the Lakers here. Feel free to come yell at me on Twitter about it or in the comment