The overarching themes heading into this series are pretty clear. The Lakers strengths are in their front court, while the Suns are in their backcourt. The main question, then, is which team is more equipped to slow down the other team’s best players. On paper, it looks like the answer to that question is the Lakers. The game is not played on paper, however, and game 1 will be a test of how effective the Lakers can be at getting Chris Paul and Devin Booker to play below their normal standards.
Defensively, Dennis, KCP, Caruso, and Wes will have a heavy lift, with KCP in particular in store for a long night of chasing Booker around screens and holding up in isolation. If he can do so effectively, the Lakers bigs should be able to offer enough help in order to really make Booker’s life hard. However, if KCP struggles or ends up in foul trouble, the Lakers job gets a lot harder and things can open up considerably for Phoenix’s offense as a whole.
As for defending CP3, I expect Dennis to compete hard and for Caruso to serve as a capable backup. However, Wes Matthews might serve as another viable option for short stretches. When the Lakers beat the Suns a couple of weeks ago, Wes had some encouraging late game possessions on Paul, using his size and strength to battle him for positioning and doing a decent enough job of keeping him for getting to his spots. If Dennis’ minutes don’t mirror Paul’s entirely and/or if the Suns run their two point guard lineup with Payne and Paul playing together, we might find Caruso defending Payne and Wes sliding over to defend Paul. Just something to watch out for.
On the other end of the floor, I’m very interested in seeing how healthy LeBron looks early this series and that begins with this game. The extra days off should help. However, if he’s a bit slowed down or not as explosive, the matchup with Bridges gets a bit trickier. Bridges isn’t the bulkiest guy and isn’t known for his strength, but he has good feet, quickness, and incredible length. If Bron’s not able to elevate in the post or create separation off the dribble, Bridges’ length can cause him some issues and make his life harder as a scorer. Of course, Bron can counter with his passing out of the P&R and from the post, but the Lakers will need his points, too, so here’s to him finding his rhythm early — particularly on his jumper.
Of course, this game (and, really, this series) may very well come down to how well Anthony Davis plays and whether he can assert his will offensively. In the last matchup between these teams, AD was outright dominant and he carried the team to victory. If he can summon even close to that level of performance, the Lakers will be well positioned to win the game. Remember, the Suns really don’t have a viable defender for AD when he has his full offensive arsenal going. He’s too big for Crowder and Saric, too quick for Kaminsky, and too rangy for Ayton. If AD can knock down his jumper, the rest of his game will open up and the Suns will really struggle with him.
Lastly, remember this game is in Phoenix. While this is the first playoff game for many of the Suns’ younger players, expect them to have a good comfort level playing at home. That comfort can translate to more made shots and better energy, particularly at the beginning of the game. The Lakers will need to weather the storm and not get too frustrated if the Suns are able to jump out early. Just stay poised, keep plugging away, and stay within striking distance. The Lakers are good enough, particularly on defense, to string together some stops and then turn those misses into early offense opportunities. Do that enough and the game can turn in your favor.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC.