What: Los Angeles Lakers (42-30, 7th seed) at Phoenix Suns (51-21, 2nd seed)
When: Sunday, 12:30 PM AZ Time
Where: Phoenix Suns Arena
Watch: ABC, and Bally Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
Here we go. It’s all come down to this. The Phoenix Suns blasted their way through the regular season with the league’s second best record (51-21) — including the best record against winning teams (27-11) — but now are a massive underdog in a series against the suddenly-healthy defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Get hyped for the playoffs with this preview video from superfan Andrew Leezus
Lakers vs Suns: Round One.— Andrew (@AndrewLeezus) May 21, 2021
Full movie trailer. pic.twitter.com/BLVKqVVk7f
People feel ‘sorry’ for the Suns, who have not played a playoff game since May 29, 2010 (yes, 11 years ago), to have to face the Lakers in round one. They ‘like’ the Suns, but not that much. On ESPN, 17 of 18 writers picked the Lakers to win the series, and Vegas made it the first time a 2-seed has been an underdog to a 7-seed.
How is that possible? Let me show you real quick.
The Main Event
The biggest story is the battle of the 36 year old future Hall of Fame stars. Lakers star LeBron James has made the Finals the last nine straight times he’s been in the playoffs. Suns star Chris Paul has been a first-round loser in six of his 12 playoff appearances. Both will win entry to the Naismith Hall of Fame on their first ballot, but both will have a different playoff legacy. LeBron has 10 Finals appearances, while Paul has none. LeBron has four titles, while Paul has none.
In this first round matchup as each stands closer to 40 years old than 30, Paul and James will both shine, each having their own impact on winning. Some of the games will likely even come down to who makes the most clutch shots between them.
You might want to give LeBron the big edge on this one over Paul, but Paul is healthy and LeBron is not. I won’t count out Chris Paul until I see LeBron playing at full speed (ankle injury).
Can the Suns’ next best player, Devin Booker cancel out the Lakers’ next best player, Anthony Davis? Likely not, but the Suns will need this dream to come true.
For sure, Anthony Davis is more talented than Booker. He is a top-10 NBA player, maybe top-5, while Booker is top-20, maybe top-15. That may sound close, but it’s not as close Suns fans want it to be.
If the Suns are going to beat the Lakers in a series, Devin Booker is going to have to be his best self. And I don’t mean the C.J. McCollum version of this year (score-first with a sprinkle of assists). I mean the 2020 Booker with 6+ assists per game on top of those 27 points. I mean the Booker that was among the league leaders in high-value passes (bball-index.com). I mean the Booker that was automatic, fearless and got to the line 7+ times per game.
Because when the Lakers bottle up the Chris Paul pick-and-roll with their sheer size advantage and top-ranked defense, it’s Booker who is going to have to make plays for himself and others when Paul has to pass out of the offense.
The Lakers will have to key their defense on Chris Paul, leaving Devin Booker in a broken-play on-the-move situation and he will need to force the Lakers to rotate and rotate again in quick order.
Booker plays his first playoff game of his six-year NBA career today, so I know he will have the jitters.
“It’s going to be emotional,” he admitted, when I asked him about how he thinks he will handle the pregame and tipoff. “It’s been a long 11 years for this city. It’s going to be a relief.”
And all the rest
If CP and Book can come close to making the impact that LBJ and AD have on a game, then it will be up to the supporting casts to decide the series.
And frankly, I believe that Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Torrey Craig is a good bit better on both ends of the floor than the Lakers’ mix Andre Drummond, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso. I just do.
Who among these players will end up a ‘hero’ in this round? At least one of these guys will have a series they tell their kids and grandkids about it.
Home court advantage
The Suns will need an extra boost to top the Lakers and that boost can come from the crowd. Let’s hope the majority of the arena is filled with Suns fans, if not 80%. I know for sure that Laker fans are willing to spend big on the secondary market ($500 on some upper level seats, $900 on some lower level), and it might be more than Suns fans can afford. I will be particularly perturbed if the arena looks more gold than orange.
The Suns need that home crowd in games one and two to keep the advantage over the Lakers, and they will need the home crowd boost again when it comes back to Phoenix in game five and (maybe) game seven.
Your Suns will need every ounce of motivation you can give them, Suns fans. The Phoenix Suns Arena was once a rocking, rowdy place and we need it to be that way again. I still remember cheering so loud during SSOL that I got light-headed during the game and lost my voice after. Let’s make this a place no one forgets, especially this Suns team.
The players already love the support they’ve gotten from partially-filled stands (thanks, COVID).
“They do a helluva job showing us love,” Cam Payne told me recently. “And they deserve every bit of it from what I hear. Ten years not being in the playoffs, this is a big deal. This is a big deal for the city. The fans are doing a great job.”
“Our place is the loudest place I’ve been in this year,” head coach Monty Williams said after the Suns beat the Blazers here a bit over a week ago. “It’s going to be a huge advantage for us.”
“I’ve missed it,” center Deandre Ayton said after a recent win. “I’ve missed all of it so much.”
Suns as the underdog
Throw out the head to head matchups. Due to Lakers injuries, this CP-led Suns team has never played a Lakers team with LeBron and AD in there together. Today starts a new day.
As for the Suns, none of them have playoff experience at all, except for Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. Paul is a 50/50 first-round out, and Crowder is a role player unlikely to swing a whole series.
The pundits and oddsmakers believe that means DOOM for the Suns.
On ESPN, 17 of 18 contributors picked the Lakers to win the series (thanks Bobby Marks!). In particular, Zach Lowe has spent the past month tapping the Suns on the butt for a good job while saying they would lose a first-round matchup to the Lakers and probably even the Warriors.
On CBSSports.com, the predictions were the same. I’m now your biggest fan, Jasmyn Wimbish!
i will steer this ship alone then pic.twitter.com/BVIdgHbG81— Jasmyn Wimbish (@JasmynWimbish) May 22, 2021
Anywhere you look, including Vegas, has the Lakers winning the series.
Have the Suns seen these predictions?
Head coach Monty Williams says of course he and the players have seen all the dire predictions for them, but that motivation from it is short-lived.
“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.”
In the end, he says they can’t let public perception become their reality, and he’s got a recent data point to prove it.
“They didn’t predict we would win 51 games,” he said with a smile, “So why would we listen to them now?”
He says they’re not bitter at all about having to face the defending champs in round one, and laughed off any hint of negativity. He reminds us that they deserve to be there they are, which got them home court advantage in the playoffs.
Chris Paul says he feels no negativity either, and welcomes the chance to play any team.
“You can’t duck nobody,” he says.
The Clippers and Nuggets very clearly threw their final-weekend games to ensure they wouldn’t pop up to the 2-seed to face the Lakers, and their karma bit them in the ass on Saturday. Both teams lost game one and their home court advantage by losing to the Mavericks and Blazers, respectively. That’s what you get when try to duck someone.
Pick them to win today
The same Vegas and off-Vegas oddsmakers who think the Suns will lose the series have also predicted the Suns will win game one in Phoenix on Sunday. You should predict the same, and keep that positive energy throughout the day.
Here’s a hype video made by the Suns with Dan Majerle and Charles Barkley
Let’s paint this town with Suns colors!