The emotional swings, not only play-to-play but game-to-game, have been immense during the Western Conference First Round. Both the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers have put forth their runs, absorbed the opposition’s blows, and had to process injury-laden lineups.
The result is a series tied at 2-2, heading back to Phoenix.
The phrase “champions adjust” isn’t just a slogan I used as a twenty-something playing beer pong. It is a philopshy that leads to victory for those who can appropriately execute. After a Game 3 that saw little in the world of adjustments by Phoenix, Game 4 was an exhibition of implementing your game plan, executing your adjustments, and imposing your will.
We saw an increase in physicality in Game 4. We witnessed a team that is mentally tough. It will need to continue for Phoenix to complete the upset.
Our own Dave King recently spoke with Michael Pina (Twitter: @MichaelVPina), staff writer for Sports Illustrated, about what he saw in Game 4 and how that could translate to Game 5.
Dave King: The Suns made some defensive adjustments in Game 4 to protect the paint a lot better. After getting killed in the paint in Game 3, they actually outscored the Lakers there in Game 4. The Lakers were aggressive, but got met by a lot of orange jerseys every time. Is this Suns adjustment sustainable? Or did the Lakers just not force the action as much?
Michael Pina: The Lakers aren’t a three-point shooting team, but their three-point rate in Game 4 was a whopping 44.9%, a number that’s only been topped in three other instances all season.
Losing Anthony Davis in the second half naturally hurt their ability to dominate the paint, but the Suns still did a pretty good job cutting off drives in the half-court. Kyle Kuzma sprung free a couple times (including one nice lefty finish over Deandre Ayton) and LeBron James was able to rumble coast to coast more often than Monty Williams wants.
The Suns only allowed one lob to Andre Drummond (who slipped behind Frank Kaminsky on a Kuzma-LeBron pick-and-roll that started the second quarter) which was important. But, especially if Davis can’t go in Game 5, it’ll be interesting to see how the Lakers utilize Montrezl Harrell—who played four minutes and didn’t take a shot.
L.A. tried to get something going at the start of the fourth quarter with James-Harrell pick-and-rolls, but the spacing just wasn’t there. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also can’t go again, those driving lanes definitely won’t get any wider.
DK: Lakers coach Frank Vogel complained about the refs/foul calls after Game 4, with too many going against the Lakers is his opinion. Was that criticism valid?
MP: Frank Vogel has his reasons for saying and even believing this was the case for his team after a disappointing loss in which the Lakers lost one of their superstars for the entire second half. But I believe there are bad calls in every game, for every team. It’s the playoffs. Shot making and tight execution on both ends are what ultimately hold a greater sway on the outcomes than anything else.
In Game 4, the Suns and Lakers had about the same free-throw rate. If I were Vogel, I’d be much more concerned with how inept my team’s offense was (L.A.’s 94.7 offensive rating was their fifth-lowest output of the entire season.)
DK: Devin Booker has been off since game one, struggling to find the space to get the shots he wants. The Lakers are doing everything they can to get Book out of rhythm and make him take shots where and when he doesn’t really want to. Does that change with CP more healthy? Or is Booker just playing poorly?
MP: It’s Booker’s first playoff series of his career against the defending champs, a team with the top-ranked defense in the league, so growing pains should be expected. Aside from the fact that it’s easier to lock in on Booker when Paul isn’t a threat, Booker is drawing fouls but attempting half as many catch-and-shoot threes as he got during the regular season. The deep pull ups that open up so much for the rest of Phoenix’s offense haven’t gone down. That could change as he gets more comfortable against L.A.’s defense.
DK: Assuming full health, what is the top adjustment you see each team needing to make to win that all-important game five?
MP: I don’t know that the Suns need to do too much. They know what they are and if Chris Paul looks like the dude he was all season (which was the case in Game 4), they’ll be fine.
The big Lakers adjustment has been clear from the start: Post LeBron James. He only recorded a single post-up in Game 4, which is both inexcusable and understandable. On one hand, when LeBron has his back to the basket he should be able to obliterate Mikal Bridges or Jae Crowder whenever he wants. On the other, the Suns are well equipped to double and rotate off L.A.’s shooters without hesitation. James doesn’t have the firepower around him that he once did.
All that said, expect way more post touches for James in Game 5, whether Davis goes or not.
DK: What is your prediction for game five?
MP: I picked the Lakers in 7 before this series began, and I’m not quite ready to back off it. That said, being that it’s unlikely Davis will look like Davis in Game 5, I’m picking the Suns to take a 3-2 series lead.
Monty has to begin fine-tuning how he wants to approach Game 5. There are numerous questions that are lingering in the air. How does Chris Paul feel? How can the Suns free up Devin Booker? What is the status of Anthony Davis?
Lakers star Anthony Davis is unlikely to play in Game 5 vs. Suns on Tuesday due to strained groin, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. There’s optimism about Davis‘ status as series continues and as he is evaluated day-to-day.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 31, 2021
Despite Davis’ health entering Game 5, there is still a mountain to climb for Phoenix. They have regained homecourt, but the Lakers are going to come out swinging. Knowing that will occur, there is one thing Monty and the Suns can do: adjust.