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Game 5 Preview: Suns-Lakers is all about health and bully ball

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The Suns can take control of the series with a win tonight in Phoenix

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

What: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns, Series tied 2-2

When: 7:00 PM

Where: Phoenix Suns Arena (16,000 fans allowed)

Watch: Bally Sports and TNT

Listen: 98.7 FM


Here we are in an NBA Playoffs Game Five with the series all tied up at 2-2 with three games left to play and one of those team will win the two necessary to advance.

Historically, the home team has a significant advantage at this point because they are at home for two of the three games. That’s the Phoenix Suns, who will host Game Five tonight and (if necessary) Game Seven on Saturday.

Also historically, LeBron James of the defending NBA Champ Los Angeles Lakers has never lost a first round playoff series in 14 chances. Fourteen chances!

Let’s go!


Injuries

Lakers: Anthony Davis (knee, groin) is DOUBTFUL, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (knee) is DOUBTFUL

Suns: Chris Paul (shoulder) is PROBABLE

Narrative: the series shifts on a daily basis depending on injuries, and now injuries are going to very much influence the outcome of tonight’s game too. Will Chris Paul continue to improve? Will Davis and/or KCP will healthy enough to go?


Probable Starting Lineups


Adjustments

Yesterday, I was able to hook up with Michael Pina of SI.com to discuss each team’s state going into Game Five. Here are Michael’s answers, which were also posted as a separate article yesterday that you might have missed because it was a holiday.

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 AD plays or not.


The DA effect

Can we pour one out for Deandre Ayton in this series? The Lakers have decided they can live with Ayton scoring inside as long as they spend all their energy stopping Booker and Paul from beating them.

But no player has been better on both ends in all four games for the Suns than Ayton. And this isn’t a small thing, what DA has been doing. He’s one of the only a handful of players in NBA history to post 14+ points and 10+ rebounds in each of their first four playoff games. The group gets even smaller — all Hall of Fame — if you make it total points and rebounds in their first four. To boot, Ayton has been stellar in fourth quarters of their two wins over the Lakers with his rebounding and defense.

DA has stayed off the Lakers radar so far, but I can see the Lakers turning a bit of their attention to Ayton in terms of trying to get him in foul trouble very early. Expect a lot of offensive designs to put Ayton on an island against LeBron or Drummond in the post, with them throwing their bodies to the floor on short turnaround hooks. Also, expect a lot of dribble drives where Ayton has to help or allow an open layup.

Basically, I doubt the Lakers take very many shots outside the paint in this one. If DA can stay out of foul trouble, the Suns will take that. But if Ayton has to sit for big stretches, the Suns could be in trouble.


One crazy stat

If I asked you, who is the Suns best plus-minus player (net points for/against when on the floor) in this series so far?

In the regular season, the Suns leaders in plus-minus were Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker, followed by Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric. That’s four starters and a bench player that had a terrible, no-good end of season and now is buried on the bench behind Frank Kaminsky.

How does it look in the playoffs?

Your plus-minus leader after four playoff games is.... Jae Crowder.

Yes, THAT Jae Crowder, who started the series missing 19 of 20 threes and was infamously clowned by LeBron James in the post in Game Three.

Somehow, Jae is a +35 over four games — that’s a 8.5 point advantage per game!!


Prediction

The Suns have home court and will have 16,000 screaming fans (hopefully 90% Suns fans) in the arena to cheer them on. Every player has said how special that is, and how the fans have really carried them to wins. In fact, as fans have increased, the Suns have won 16 of their last 18 home games through tonight’s game.

I am going to predict a Suns win here.

If AD and KCP play healthy and Chris Paul plays healthy, I predict a nail-biter win.

If AD and KCP are out and Chris Paul plays healthy, Suns in a big win like in Game 4.

If AD and KCP play healthy but Chris Paul is ailing, the Lakers can win like they did Game 2/3.