Neither the Suns nor the Lakers have shot the ball well in the opening games of their first round series, and as the series heads to Los Angeles, one way the Suns could get an advantage over the Lakers is to finally have their shooting prowess show up.
During the regular season, the Suns had the 15th-highest three-point frequency and the seventh-best accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers were 23rd and 20th in those respective categories. But during this series so far, neither team has made even one-third of its total threes.
It’s not for a lack of focus on the Suns part on creating open looks from deep. To start Game One, shooters often flared out to the corners while pushing the pace, leading to five-plus attempts each for Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. Those guys just missed — Crowder in particular. And as the game went on, the Lakers did a better job rotating out to those shooters and forcing most of the offense to run through Booker mid-range jumpers and Deandre Ayton finishes.
The pace also slowed down, and even with the incredible amount of defensive pressure on Booker, LA was still able to recover and defend the three-point line.
It doesn’t help that Paul hasn’t been able to throw a crisp pass since the second quarter of Game One. Still, in the clip above and countless others, the Lakers clearly decided to stay home on shooters and eliminate that from the Suns’ game in pick and roll or isolation situations for the Suns’ star guards.
When the Lakers did start to scramble, their quickness and IQ made it tough on the Suns.
“We’re not doing anything selfishly, we’re just trying to do it at a faster pace than we normally might,” said Jae Crowder after Game Two.
“They sped us up tonight a little bit and were able to get us on the ball and get us into a few turnovers, but we definitely can find ways to make those shots a lot easier for ourselves, and we’ve gotta step into them and knock them down.”
What might that look like? It could start with plays just like the one above. Booker makes an incredible shot, but what if he had given it up? In the play below, he gets doubled and finds Bridges, who swishes an in-rhythm triple.
That’s a very difficult needle to thread. You don’t want Booker giving up open shots, but without Paul setting teammates up, having Booker solely looking to score is also probably not enough to win.
Booker’s scoring also brings us to another angle of the shooting battle playing out between these teams. I’ve written and talked ad nauseam over the past three seasons about Booker’s struggles hitting pull-up threes, and in Game Two, it was a major blemish on Booker’s otherwise spectacular playoff debut.
Whether it was a stepback in isolation/transition or a pull-up coming around a screen, Booker missed badly. Those were his only threes all night, and he is a player who tends to abandon that shot if it’s not going in. Because of that, the Lakers are getting away with dropping their big men into the paint when they defend the pick-and-roll because they don’t have to worry about Booker bombing away off the bounce.
Compare that, for example, to how Denver is defending Damian Lillard:
Or how these same Lakers defended Steph Curry last week in the play-in game:
Now, the Lakers did adjust in Game Two by having their big men come to Booker once he got to around the free-throw line, and from there, Booker and the Suns did a good job of finding Ayton when he got freed up. But that’s not a consistent strategy.
Remember: the Suns’ halfcourt offense has to be consistently good enough to beat LeBron James post-ups, Anthony Davis’ face-up games, and the fact that the Lakers have been great on the offensive glass in this series. Throughout most of the regular season, the way that the Suns’ halfcourt offense succeeded was by generating and making open threes.
Because of the Lakers’ defensive intensity and Booker’s proclivity to operate from mid-range, those threes just aren’t coming. They can look to run more Spain pick-and-roll and other off-ball action for the likes of Johnson and Booker to get in rhythm more often, and a heavier dose of Cameron Payne should help space the floor, but the underlying issues are still there.
Booker is not a consistent deep range pull-up shooter, and Paul’s passing is hard to trust right now.
“We’ve gotta continue to generate good lucks and trust our work, knowing that it’s gonna pay off,” said Crowder this week.
Right now, the Suns just aren’t generating those good looks, and they haven’t made the ones that have been created. If that changes, they could finally get their offense going.