By winning game 3, the Lakers took control of their series with the Suns. To maintain that control, however, game 4 will present an even bigger challenge because the level of desperation I anticipate the Suns showing will be like nothing the Lakers have seen since, maybe, their play-in game vs. the Warriors. The Suns know going down 3-1 makes the series, essentially, over. It simply does not get bigger than the difference between going back to their rabid crowd in Phoenix tied vs. being on the verge of elimination.
From the Lakers side, there are now several things that they can build on to make their grip on this series even tighter. Offensively, they have found that there’s some key actions that domino in their favor:
- In game 2, the Lakers opened the 2nd half by running side P&R’s between Bron and AD that the Suns were switching, putting Crowder on Bron and Bridges on AD. AD attacked Bridges aggressively on back to back possessions, causing a double team that led to a LeBron 3 and a spin + drive for a basket and a foul by Davis for a quick 6-0 run. In game 3, when the Lakers went to this same action, the Suns determined they could not switch anymore and Crowder was forced to hedge out on Bron in order to deter drives. In the 2nd half of game 3, whenever Crowder hedged, Bron went downhill and attacked the paint, creating several easy shots in the process…
- The Lakers weren’t just going to settle on running this action without even more adjustments, though. When Bron started to drive, they also started to relocate Drummond from one dunker’s spot from the other in the middle of the action. This accomplishes two things. First, it occupies Ayton and forces him to be ahead of the play and pre-read whether he can help or of he has to stay with Drummond. If Ayton is late in making this decision, Bron will finish without a good contest. If Ayton does help, Bron can still dump off to Drummond or he can spray the ball out to a shooter. In the 2nd half of game 3, the Suns never did find a good way to really slow this action down with Ayton as the helper. So….
- Game 3 saw Ayton defend AD more often even when there was another big on the floor. In most instances this was when Gasol was on the floor, with the thinking being that a smaller player could stick the more perimeter based Gasol while Ayton patrolled the paint while also having him (and his size/quickness) defend AD. This sounds good on paper, but what ended up happening was Davis still running P&R’s and Ayton forced into hedging out on aggressive drives and still trying to get back to AD as he rolled hard. Further, the Lakers also pulled Ayton away from the rim and went to their elbow series where AD was in the corner, Marc was at the elbow, and Dennis (or Caruso) brings the ball up. The action then has the ball entered to Marc and then Dennis (or Caruso) going to the corner to screen Ayton. The Lakers spammed this action on back to back possessions and AD got two paint shots to fall, one over Booker and one over Ayton.
So, to summarize, because AD has been aggressive going to the paint on offense, the Suns are hesitant to switch any Bron/AD P&R when AD is being defended by a PF. Which leads to Ayton defending AD more, but that also means that Ayton is going to be even less of a factor in help situations because he’s defending the Lakers leading scorer this series. This, in turn, means that LeBron can take an even more aggressive approach as a driver, because the main impediment to slowing down his drives (Ayton helping in the paint) is not as forceful with that help.
The Suns, then, have a problem and I’m very interested in seeing how they try solve it. Ayton cannot play 48 minutes, but even if he could, the question of who he defends and for how long is staring them right in the face. As long as AD stays assertive and doesn’t settle for his jumper too often and LeBron is aggressive as a driver, the Lakers offense has fundamental actions it can go to in order to generate good looks. Now, if the Lakers shooters could simply start to hit a league average percentage of their open 3’s, they could be cooking with fire. If that happens this game, watch out. KCP’s health will matter here and if he’s limited or does not play, that can throw a monkey wrench in things. That said, Wes, Kuz, AC, and Dennis will continue to get open looks and they need to start to fall. Hopefully it’s in game 4.
On the other end of the floor, the Lakers need to continue to refine their Booker based attack and keep adding wrinkles that can also help slow down Ayton. If the team can continue to find ways to involve AD as a helper down on Ayton and rotate to the Suns shooters, that will help. But the nature of this is hard an is reliant on the Suns not getting so hot from outside that it blows up the plan. But, my sense is that the Lakers will live with a certain amount of Suns made 3’s as long as they’re doing their job on Booker and not letting him walk into mid-range jumpers. As noted above, KCP will be important here and if he’s not able to play (or shows signs of not being healthy) things get harder. Wes is not quick enough to stay with Booker and Dennis is a bit too small. My guess is that if KCP isn’t able to play as well as he has been defensively, it will be Caruso who takes up more of the slack. We’ll see.
The wildcard here continues to be Chris Paul’s health. If, after two more days off, he’s a bit healthier, his mid-range shooting and general playmaking can be a big boost to the Suns. He can organize them better than Booker or Payne and help them flow into their actions with better timing and tempo. If he’s not healthy, though, the Suns become more reliant on their other guards and that’s not a recipe for long term success over the course of a full game. Again, we’ll see how this plays out, but, besides the Lakers shooting drastically improving, it’s probably the biggest variable left that could turn a game in one direction or the other.
As I’ve been saying all series, the most important thing to me is how hard the Lakers play and what their focus level is. Again, the Suns are going to come out desperate to win this game. Expect their best effort of the series. The Lakers need to match that energy and, when the moment comes, turn it up even more to take control and sow those seeds of doubt to make the Suns question if they’re able to win at all. The 3rd quarter of game 3 is instructive here. If the Lakers can get out in transition/early offense, attack the rim with both Bron and AD, and just hit a couple of open 3’s, the floodgates can open — particularly with the Lakers playing at home.
This is the time to really take control of this series. The core of this team knows what it takes — it’s the same thing they saw in the early rounds of the playoffs last year. They just have to go and do it. It won’t be easy, but winning in the playoffs never is.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC.