As the lower seed in this playoff series, the main goal is to get a split in the first two games. Sure, you want to win every game you’re in, but getting that split means you flip home court advantage and, even if only slightly, take control of the series. The Lakers, then, should be looking at this game vs. the Suns like “this is the one we really want”. Getting it won’t be easy, of course, but the playoffs are never easy.
Game one was, in many ways, an abomination from the Lakers. That might seem harsh, but in rewatching the game, the mistakes were too frequent and the effort level was too sparse. Those things go hand in hand, of course, and the result was a spiral against them and for the Suns. The fact that the Suns only scored 99 points and the final margin was as close as it was belies what actually happened on the court. The Lakers can be so much better. And while the Suns can too, there’s some areas where they really were at (or near) peak capacity.
In looking forward to tonight’s game, then, we need to start on both ends of that spectrum. For the Lakers, Anthony Davis needs to be better. His effort level and general engagement was too low, his imprint on the game almost entirely absent. His defense was a step behind and his offensive approach was too “let the game come to me”. His approach needs to change and the Lakers need to help him do it.
He cannot go the first 5 minutes without getting a meaningful offensive touch and when he does get the ball, he needs to attack early in his move and not let the defense crowd him or dictate how the possession plays out. No more multiple jab steps that burn the clock before just firing up a long 2, no more half hearted back-downs into deep turnaround jumpers. If he turns and faces, rip through to his strong hand for his floating hook. When they try to take that away, drop step baseline and initiate contact to draw fouls and/or finish through defenders. When he’s in a pure post up situation, he needs to do his work early by holding his ground to get deeper position, shoulder his defender to knock him off his base, and then turn over either shoulder to get his shot off. He needs to run the floor harder and do so for dunks and deep post seals. He needs to play….like Anthony Davis.
The same is true for LeBron, honestly. I know the questions about his health are lurking out there. I’m sure he’s not 100% healthy. But LeBron took 13 shots in game 1, didn’t look to push the pace at all, and was mostly content to linger around the perimeter as a jump shooter and a passer. When he did post up, it was mostly to pass and not to score or draw a foul. Game 1’s are typically “feel out” games for LeBron, I know. But it’s go time for him now and the adjustments he make should, first and foremost, center around his want to attack. I’d love to see this be a night where he gets to the FT line nine or 10 times. I want to see him hunt early offense chances by pushing the ball off rebounds and filling the outside lane for outlets when someone else gets the ball.
As for the rest of the team offensively, guys need to make shots. The Suns are going to crowd the paint and even if LeBron and AD are more assertive and are able to beat the help, they’re still going to make the correct reads and kick the ball out directly to shooters or into positions where the swing-swing will lead to an open shot. The guys need to hit those. KCP, Wes, and Kuz are the primary guys here. But Dennis and, yes, I believe, Marc Gasol will also get these chances.
They need to shoot with confidence, but more importantly, they need to shoot with accuracy. Schematically, the coaches also need to drill some off ball movement in order to help make those shots even more open. Do more weak side exchanges and wing to wing screens to get the defense moving. The bigs should be setting more pin and flare screens to create more space for guys to get those shots off more cleanly and to generate better passing angles that lead to those shots in the first place. When the top side guard cuts and doesn’t get the ball, he should look to pick off an opposing player before relocating to the vacant spot on the wing. There’s more the Lakers can be doing from an X’s and O’s perspective to help their perimeter players (and their post up guys who have to make those reads) get into a comfort zone.
Defensively, there are adjustments to be made, too. The Suns had their way in several offensive sets, but none more so than the double/stagger screen action they ran to get Devin Booker catches at the top of the floor. The Lakers bigs were hedging high on Book as he came off those picks for the handoff and he was making the right read to the diving big or simply dragging out his dribble to walk into open jumpers. The Lakers were also playing the Suns P&R 2-on-2, but had their big men hedging in a way where they weren’t always able to recover to the rolling big men, effectively leading to switches where CP3 and Booker were walking into pull up jumpers and leaving the guard who got screened (KCP, Dennis, Caruso) to fend off the rolling big at the front of the rim. This led to open shots and/or easy putbacks and lobs for the big (mostly Ayton) to clean up.
I understand the Lakers don’t want to help off the Suns shooters and that Phoenix spaces the floor so well, that when you do help the recovery distance is too great to get up a good contest. But the rotations need to be sharper and the pressure at the point of attack needs to be better and more active. The Lakers strengths on defense revolve around size and activity. Those traits were too absent in game 1, even if they held the Suns to 99 points. The Lakers need to speed up the Suns decision making while also shrinking the passing windows. Turn up the pressure and force more thinking about who is open and where the opening is. Even if this doesn’t lead to outright mistakes, it can gum up the Suns offense in ways that force them deeper into the shot clock and to play possessions on the Lakers terms.
As far as the rotation goes, I hope to see a couple of changes. First, I want Gasol to play. He doesn’t need to start, but I think Drummond’s 1st shift should be shorter and that he should go out of the game with the first wave of subs. In game 1, that was when LeBron went out at around the 6 minute mark. If things go that way again, I’d bring in Kuz (or Wes) for Bron and Gasol for Drummond. I’d then let Marc finish the 1st quarter and then come in with Trez to start the 2nd quarter against the Suns’ back up bigs (either Saric or Kaminsky) and let him play with Bron, Caruso, Kuz, and either THT or Wes.
I think this approach can help everyone better play to their strengths by letting Drummond and Trez play with LeBron — who can help them get easier baskets in the P&R and with his passing in general — and pair AD more with Marc and other playmakers (Dennis, Caruso, maybe THT) who can open up the floor for him with some better spacing and more downhill players who will pressure the rim and force help where AD can go to the offensive glass more. These lineups aren’t perfect and the team will likely be sacrificing some defense vs. a sharp Suns offensive team, but in the end I’m hopeful that better offensive performance will allow the team to get into a good rhythm defensively while also letting them get set more often because the Suns are taking the ball out of the hoop more.
Lastly, so much of the Suns success in game 1 came down to the types of plays that are mostly made off effort and commitment. Phoenix did well seeking out transition chances for easier baskets and really winning the rebounding battle. The transition stuff comes down to the Lakers committing to getting back in transition, something that is even more important if they’re going to go to the offensive glass. The Suns clearly believe they can run on this team and the Lakers need to get that out of their heads by doing the work to stop it. As for the rebounding, some of this can be resolved by handling the Suns screen actions better as I laid out above. But some of it will also come down the guards not leaking out and the Lakers bigs playing with more effort when going to the glass. They need to box out and pursue the ball. Once you have it, then you can run. But you cannot get out in transition without the ball first.
Make no mistake, this game may not be a must win, but the Lakers chances in this series go up drastically with a win tonight. To get there, their Bron and AD must assert themselves as the best two best players on the court. In game 1, that was far from the case as Booker’s scoring and CP3’s floor generalship won the day. We can talk all we want about the role players — from Dennis (who needs to play better) to Kuz (who went scoreless in game 1 and was mostly just a guy out there) to Drummond and on down the line — but, as has been the case since the start of last season, this team will go where Bron and AD take them. Tonight, then, they must lead the way.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.