Are the Lakers back? The 4 game losing streak they suffered feels distant now. The 2 recent wins over the Blazers and the Warriors offered a return of what, I think, makes this Lakers team special. The aggressive point of attack defense, the commitment to transition offense, and the constant assault on the rim were on full display those games and the Lakers looked like themselves again. With the Suns now coming into town, the question is can they keep it going?
The Suns present some real issues that will need to be navigated for a Lakers team that wants to play the way they have since Schröder returned. First, Chris Paul is the type of point guard who dissects the types of defensive coverages the Lakers have been playing lately. You can throw two defenders at him, sure, and maybe because of his diminutive size, those defenders can disrupt him some. That said, Paul will not panic and he won’t allow himself to be sped up. He’ll string out his dribble, force you to play him out further on the court than you’d like, and then he’ll either make the right pass or put you into a no-man’s land situation where you end up switching your big onto him and then he’ll go to work in isolation.
The Lakers, then, will need to be careful about how aggressive they get vs. Paul, not showing him too much pressure too early where he can then leverage that pressure against you and make into a weakness. There’s a certain amount of chess the Lakers must play vs. him, a mix of conventional schemes and then late clock antics that put him into situations where the most pressing decisions are compounded by the urgency of needing to get a shot off at all. The more you can take Paul out of dictating the terms of possessions the better, but the path to get to that place must be navigated with discipline and with everyone on the same page.
The other problem is, of course, Devin Booker. There are few players who possess as complete an offensive game as Booker. A true 3 level scorer, he can be a point of attack killer, an off ball terror, and a guy who can generate a great shot in every halfcourt situation while also thriving in transition. Slowing him down mostly means not allowing him a touch at all, but overplay him at your own risk as he’s a smart cutter and understands fully how to escape pressure and use that assertiveness against you. He’ll then beat you for layups/dunks, flare to the arc for a 3, or just casually drift into the midrange where he’ll just torch you.
In other words, KCP and Schröder (and Caruso and THT and Wes and Kuz) will have their hands full this game. Both will not only need to have a great amount of defensive fortitude and play with smarts, they’ll also need to avoid fouling, and show scheme discipline to ensure they understand where their help is and then rely on it to nudge them along within and when closing out a possession. This then puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team too, particularly Gasol, Trez, Keef, and LeBron to be sound in their own principles and be their for their mates while also not losing track of they Aytons, Bridges’, Crowders, Johnsons, and Sarics of the world.
Offensively, with Dennis back in the lineup, the Lakers have started to get more comfortable playing without AD. Their actions to get Schröder cleaner touches for better driving angles and how they’re using more screen actions to get him into switches that he can dominate with his speed have greased the wheels for the Lakers halfcourt attack. The hope is that they can continue that this game, leveraging Dennis’ quickness in and out of picks to get him isolated against Ayton, Crowder, and Saric. These are possessions the Lakers will win over the course of the full game and trying to get to them often should be a goal.
As for LeBron, he has a tough individual matchup vs. Bridges, but this is one where he can again use his strength in the post to help him either get shots in the paint, draw fouls, or bait the Suns into helping so he can use his great passing vision and feel to setup teammates for open looks. I also hope to see Bron continue to chase transition chances and really hunt the front of the rim via race outs off misses and forced turnovers. Those transition baskets can really boost the Lakers overall attack and getting those early looks also allows the team to get good shots before the Suns get set.
Lastly, it would be really great if the Lakers shooters can build on their performance vs. the Warriors. The 11-31 line from the arc doesn’t scream out at you, but the early makes the Lakers got in that game really opened up their entire offensive attack and put the Warriors defense on their heels. Keef and Marc are huge in this respect, but KCP and Bron’s own effectiveness from deep are major drivers of the team’s overall success here. If those 4 guys can all hit an early 3 and then Kuz can come in off the bench and prove a real threat, the Suns defense will be spread thin enough to open up those driving lanes that Bron and Dennis feast on.
While it’s very early to talk about the standings, this game has some meaning on that front. The Suns are only 1 game back in the loss column from the Lakers and, as winners of 14 of their last 17 games, they’re playing really well over the last month+. The Lakers could give themselves a bit of a cushion tonight and keep their own momentum going into tomorrow night’s game that will then usher them into the All-Star break. I’d love for this team to fully right the ship in this stretch and that makes this game meaningful.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.