The playoffs, at the most basic level, are about problem solving. How can you decipher and counter what the other team is trying to do faster and more effectively than what they are. The number of problems you can present for the opponent, then, is nearly as key as your response to whatever they’re throwing at you. The more advantages you have the better, and the fewer the other team can muster against you will typically translate to a win (in a game, and a series). It’s what makes this time of the year great. Game plans, adjustments, and counters. Refine, rinse, repeat. Keep the other team guessing, make them flail just one or two extra times and you can win a crucial game. Heading into game 5, the Lakers are certainly in a tricky and difficult spot vs. the Suns, but all is not lost…not by a long shot.
Yes, the Lakers have an uphill climb. They’re on the road in front of a massive and lively Phoenix crowd. Chris Paul looks as healthy as he has since the 2nd quarter of game 1. Meanwhile, the Lakers are unlikely to have Anthony Davis available after a strained groin knocked him out of game 4 right before halftime. The Suns, then, seem to have the lead in problems they can present vs. the ones that the Lakers can offer them. The key for the Lakers, though, is sorting through whether or not they can create a new set of problems without Davis and whether the Suns can be prepared for them.
This is where the adjustments come and, honestly, where the chief problem for the rest of the league over the past 15 years or so must shift to the middle of the frame. Hello, LeBron James.
Optimizing and maximizing LeBron is now the Lakers best option for the foreseeable future of this series. Accomplishing that can go in several different directions, but I do have a few ideas:
- More Bron/Gasol minutes. Drummond has been fine in this series and focusing on him too much is probably folly. That said, the Drummond/Bron minutes can still be clunky in terms of spacing, particularly because it allows Ayton to lurk near the paint and contest Bron’s shots around the rim (or deter them entirely). If Bron is playing more PF (or at least playing with a more perimeter based partner at forward — either Keef or Kuz), playing next to Marc means that Ayton’s positioning on the floor changes. I still think he’ll sag off Marc and look to help more, but the help angles change when you’re a foot outside the low block defending Drummond in the dunker’s spot vs. standing at the nail while Marc camps above the break in 3-point territory. This change can translate to better post up chances for Bron and more driving angles, particularly in the P&R (either with Marc or with one of the guards/wings setting the screen). Again, Marc doesn’t need to start the game for Andre. But Ayton is playing 40 minutes, so using 10-15 (or more) of those when Bron is on the floor to have Marc in the game too feels like a good solution.
- Play even smaller. I understand Lakers are not deepest wing team in the league. And for all the utility I just mentioned for how Marc can and should play next to Bron more, an alternative to that is for Bron to not have another “big” next to him at all. Playing Bron next to, say, Keef in the front court with Wes, Alex, and KCP (assuming he can play) gives Bron even more space to work with and puts the Suns in the position of deciding between playing Ayton at all or simply matching up with what the Lakers have on the court. If the Suns take that bait and determine they cannot have Ayton defend Bron (which, if they choose the opposite, good luck) then the biggest player on the floor is likely going to have to guard the best driver and paint finisher the team has, compromising their rim protection in the process. Bron has had great success playing in these types of lineups historically. And considering they need that level of play from him tonight, I’d give these groupings a try, particularly in the 2nd half.
- Use LeBron as an on-ball screener more. With AD out, the want to have Drummond do even more of the “big man” things might be the first instinct, but I think that burden should fall on LeBron — at least offensively. Put him in more screen actions with Dennis, Caruso, and, if he plays, THT. Force the defense to decide how they’re going to cover Bron in these actions and how much attention they’re going to send his way when he rolls vs. when he pops and how much space that can all create for the ball handler and, in turn, for Bron. Maybe you force a switch, maybe you get a soft hedge that allows the ball handler to get downhill. There’s ways to try to create more advantages for both LeBron and the rest of the team by involving him in actions even when he doesn’t have the ball.
There’s more lineup stuff to explore, of course.
Should Trez play? If you’re looking to replicate some of what AD provides as an interior finisher, it shouldn’t be ruled out entirely despite some of the defensive concerns. Understand, in the two games the Lakers lost the Suns scored 99 and 100 points. Finding more offense is important and Trez can help there — though, again, there’s a balance to be struck and wondering if the Suns might score more than 100 should Trez see real minutes is a valid concern. That said, if the Lakers can surround him with enough defensive talent, Trez’s offense can help, especially in the non-Ayton minutes. I’m doubtful Vogel goes in this direction, but I don’t think it should be off the table either.
What are the right lineup combinations to play around Dennis? Getting more production out of their starting PG is paramount for whatever success this team is going to have. Dennis has been below his regular season level this series and had a dreadful game 4. Getting him more space and finding more opportunities to get to the spots on the floor where he can get his jumpshot off cleanly is important. One thing I’d love to see Dennis do is shoot his floater more and take that elbow jumper with more confidence rather than driving all the way to the rim. He needs to understand that it’s his mid-range shot that will open up his drives more and look to be more assertive with that shot. If Ayton is in a drop and Dennis pulls up (making Ayton contest) it could also open up some offensive rebounding lanes for Drummond on the hard roll. Further, if Dennis can snake the P&R some (just like the Suns guards are going) he may be able to force some switches, which could allow him to drive vs. bigger players — something he’s been good at all season.
There’s many other factors to help the Lakers offensively — Kuz needs to play better, the shooters have to make shots, Drummond needs to have a bounce back game, etc. But the biggest thing the Lakers need to get back to is playing with pace and tempo. They need to run and they need to hunt early offense chances. The Lakers are still a team that, with Bron and Dennis, can play fast and use some of their physical advantages to create shots at the rim while the Suns are retreating. Playing against the Suns set defense is going to make this game a slog and it plays into the best aspects of what the Suns do on that side of the floor. Push the pace every chance you get, even if the Suns are really stressing getting back. Hopefully KCP is back and he’s ready to race the floor. But, even if he’s not, Dennis, Bron, Caruso, and Kuz need to set the tone here. Drummond (and Trez, if he plays) needs to run hard to the front of the rim as well. Good things happen when the Lakers play with pace (as long as they’re not being careless and turning the ball over).
Defensively, the answers are not simple, but the game plan is straight forward enough. The Suns are going to continue to pressure the point of attack with their P&R game and their stagger screen/handoff actions for Booker. The Lakers have the tools to slow this stuff down even without AD. That said, having the tools and executing are two different things. There’s a level of sharpness that will be required without AD out there to erase mistakes or serve as a deterrent. Rotations must be on time and the helping of the helper must be consistent and present all night. I do think the Lakers can start to give different looks in the P&R — particularly when CP3 is handling. Until he proves willing to take (and make) 3’s, I’d go under a screen every now and then to see how he handles it. There’s counters to that the Suns will have ready, but make them think a bit more and use up a bit more clock instead of allowing Paul to simply snake every P&R and get into his fading mid-range jumper against Drummond/Marc in their drop coverage. That’s the shot he wants to take and in game 4 he hurt the Lakers with it.
Also, I’d love to see the Lakers tighten up their defense some vs. Cam Payne. Payne’s tendencies should be well known by now, but the Lakers have not done a good job of slowing him. He loves to drive to his right hand and get all the way to the rim, usually with a reverse layup on the other side of the hoop. I’d love to see the Lakers force him left a bit more because his angles change when going to his dominant hand and his lack of size make it harder for him to finish over the help. So, play up on him a bit more to deter his 3 point shot, but force him to his strong hand and see if he’s able to compensate. Things have come too simple for him and it’s time to try to change that.
The Lakers championship hopes certainly depend on AD being healthy enough to compete long term. And not having him for any single game makes things exponentially harder. But, in any given game, a great LeBron James performance can be the ultimate difference maker between winning and losing. There’d be no better night for one of those performances than in game 5. It won’t be easy and we all know that LeBron isn’t 100% either. But he’s what the Lakers have and that just may be enough.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.