After winning game 2 to bring the series even at one game a piece, the Lakers enter tonight’s game against the Suns with momentum that they cannot take for granted. Returning home is great and welcomed. The team, however, cannot rest on the fact that playing in front of their own fans will provide them the energy they need to win, rather they must bring that energy themselves and bring the crowd along with them.
There’s really no other thing I want from this team tonight besides the same focus and urgency they carried into Tuesday’s game carry over to tonight’s. Make no mistake, that will be harder. Unlike last year’s team, this team’s urgency is more fluid and not as pressing from possession to possession. Whether it be the duality of the halves of their play-in win over the Warriors or the difference between what transpired in game 1 vs. game 2 of this series, it’s clear that this team will, as is the wont of many teams vying to repeat as champions, conjure the intensity to really win a game when it’s most needed and not as their default position. That said, we know this team has it in them. I want to see it tonight.
From a strategy standpoint, I do expect the Suns to do some things differently. And I think that starts defensively with Anthony Davis. It remains to be seen if they stick with their normal matchups by defending AD with Crowder to start, but it will not surprise me if Ayton is the primary defender more frequently. Ayton’s combination of size, strength, and quick (enough) feet are simply the better option for AD specifically. Of course, that could come with real tradeoffs — unleashing Drummond even more on the offensive glass, involving Crowder in even more ball screens where he has to hedge on LeBron, potential foul trouble for Ayton — but if AD gets going early, a change may be needed.
Another option would be sending more double teams at Davis and turning him into a passer. Over the last two seasons, AD’s success vs. double teams has been hit or miss, but it’s almost always lowered his shot volume and tamed down his assertiveness as a scorer. If the Suns do double, I hope AD makes the right reads as a passer, but I also hope to see some of the adjustments he made in last year’s playoffs where he turns and faces more and then uses escape dribbles to force the double team out further if they’re going to stay with him or force them retreat back into rotation while AD still has the ball and can then attack with the defense scrambling behind him. If AD can generate good shots for teammates and himself even when the Suns double, the Lakers offense will open up even more.
And speaking of offense, the Lakers need to start to shoot better — particularly their role players. KCP and Kuz have been especially silent this series and that needs to change. Game two saw LeBron and AD close the game on a flurry, but it was Dennis and Drummond whose play as support guys who really lifted the team in the early and middle parts of the game to give the Lakers the lead they carried into the 4th quarter. It would be great if the Lakers perimeter shooters could provide that lift this game by knocking down some of the open 3’s the Suns are allowing by packing the paint so much.
This all brings me back to LeBron. A major talking point this series has been his lack of drives to the rim in the halfcourt. Bron’s been good on offense, but mostly as a jumpshooter and passer and not as the downhill force who is finishing at the rim through, over, and around defenders. I’m not sure if this is a health issue or that the Suns defensive approach of packing the paint is simply influencing his decision making. But, I’d love to see Bron get a few baskets on drives this game, simply to offer more variety in his offensive attack (to say nothing of the benefits it can lead to for the bigs via dump-offs and ORebs or the perimeter guys spotting up for jumpers).
Defensively, the Lakers need to continue to decipher the Suns P&R attack and find better ways to both slow down the Suns guards while still recovering to Ayton on the roll to ensure he’s not getting so many easy baskets. This is a complex job to accomplish when playing this action without any weakside help creeping in, so I’m wondering if Vogel is going to show more a willingness to let his wings pinch in or if he’s just going to ask the point of attack guys to be better. If it were me, I’d show more help with AD when he’s in the game at PF and then trust him and the rest of the perimeter guys to recover to contest shots, but I’m not sure if Vogel will see it the same way. Whatever the strategy, though, being better defensively 10-feet and in is a priority.
The wild card for this game is Chris Paul’s health and how much he’s able to provide as a scorer and shot creator. And, in turn, if he’s still limited with his shoulder injury, how much he plays at all. If Paul is closer to his normal self, he can turn the game. If he’s not, though, the Lakers need to have a more specific gameplan for how to deal with Cameron Payne, whose quickness and scoring mentality has provided a real boost for the Suns. The Lakers need to be better at the point of attack vs. Payne in general, but their help also needs to be more alert and responsive to his drives. Turn him into a passer on the move more often and see if he has the playmaking chops to make some of the skip and kickout reads the Lakers are asking Booker and CP3 to make.
When a series is tied 1-1, the winner of game 3 becomes the heavy favorite to win the series. The Lakers now have home court advantage and a win tonight puts the Suns in the position of having to win 3 of the next 4 games to advance. So, while every playoff game is important, this one is especially so. Winning will come down to a lot of things, but it will start with effort and focus. If the Lakers can have both in abundance from the opening whistle, they’ll give themselves a good chance tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.