Use whatever language you want here — “backs against the wall”, “win or go home”, “do or die game” — they all capture the tenor and meaning of tonight’s game 6 between the Lakers and the Suns. For the first time in the 2 seasons that the Lakers have had LeBron and AD, the Lakers are facing an elimination game for themselves where, if they do not come out on top, their season is over. There’s a pressure in staring down that moment; a pressure that, on its own, can keep the team from playing to the level they’re actually capable (but more on that later).
And, if we’re being honest, there’s way more ways the Lakers can lose this game than win it. Sure, the Lakers are at home and that should help. But they’re not likely to have Anthony Davis — and even if he does play he’ll be physically limited with no guarantee he’s either impactful or able to finish the game. KCP is a similar story and thinking he’d be ready to go and play up to his normal standard less than 2 days after being unable to finish game 5 would be a stretch. The Suns have all the momentum, are playing better basketball as a group, and have given the Lakers more problems than the Lakers have given them, on balance, over the course of the series. There’s a reason the Suns are favored to win the series now and it’s not just because they have 2 games to win once.
In saying all that, there is a path for the Lakers to win this game. The formula, isn’t easy, but it’s pretty straight forward:
- Get an epic LeBron game.
- Play amazing defense.
- Shoot the ball well from behind the arc.
- Play desperate, but with a focus that’s required to execute at a high level.
In order to accomplish these things, the Lakers must change the terms of engagement from what they’ve been the last 2 games. Relying on the same gameplan, with the same rotation, is not likely to work. The Lakers must adjust and play to the remaining strengths they have rather than hoping that the ones they had coming into the series will somehow manifest with a group that is no longer the same as it was nearly 2 weeks ago.
What I suggest, then, is centering everything around LeBron and spacing. In practice, this would mean less Drummond and more Gasol, but even fewer minutes without a traditional big man on the floor at all. Both LeBron and Dennis need spacing in order to be their best offensively and any big man on the floor that allows the Suns to play Ayton his normal workload complicates that. So, I’d play more minutes with LeBron and multiple wings/guards on the floor to see if that can unlock more offensive success. Give LeBron the space he needs to not only attack, but the opposing defenders who do not offer the same rim protection for when he does get to the rim.
Of course, there’s complications that come with that. Bron, who is not 100% physically, will need to do more “big man” things than normal. He’ll need to protect the rim, make multiple rotations to the arc and back to the paint, and switch even more often onto primary ball handlers like Booker and Chris Paul. Now, he’s capable of doing all of these things, but the risk of wearing him down or getting diminishing returns from him offensively while having to do all this stuff on the other end is very real. Further, if he’s not up to the task, the Lakers could simply get shredded defensively because it’s not a style they’re used to playing in the first place.
However, as I said earlier, doing what the team has been doing isn’t likely to produce winning results either, so taking more chances becomes a plan worth investing in. To that end, changing up some of their defensive looks will be important. I’d like to see them switch more screens and, when they don’t switch, play more aggressive at the point of attack by putting two players on the ball when the Suns bring multiple offensive players into an action. Throw bodies at them and then scramble like hell out of those rotations. Mind you, the team cannot be reckless when executing this; as the old John Wooden saying goes, “be quick, but don’t hurry”.
In gettin back to potential personnel changes, switching the lineup to play more shooting means that the guys shooting the ball need to, you know, hit shots. I know I’ve been a broken record on this, but the Lakers will not win without showing a baseline level of competency from beyond the arc. They need to hit double digit 3’s this game and it needs to be on a percentage in the high 30’s (at least). A 14-32 performance (or something to that level) is sorely needed and that means every guy who plays needs to be ready to take and make shots. This is particularly true of Wes, Kuz, Alex, and Dennis. Those four guys need to hit the 3’s they’re set up for by Bron and the ball movement the team generates in the halfcourt. A big shooting night from Bron would also be welcomed, but it’s a fine line between him settling for the jumper and him trying to attack the paint. I trust him to find that balance and read the game appropriately as the primary ball handler, though. It’s the other players — the guys whose shots are almost always assisted — who need to step up most here.
I’d also recommend playing a shorter rotation and cutting out the experimentation or searching for guys who “have it”. At some point, you need to play your 7-8 best players and go from there. This game, neither AD nor KCP play, I’d advocate for Bron, Alex, Dennis, Wes, Kuz, Marc, and Drummond OR Trez as the first 7 guys. I could also be talked into THT for his shot creation and ability to score, particularly in lineups where Ayton is not in the game. But, that’s it. Everyone else needs to cheer loud and be invested in what’s happening, not pouting because they’re not playing or because their minutes are short. This is a game where I expect the main 5 or 6 guys to all be ready to play 35+ minutes and leave it all out on the floor. After all, if you lose this game, you have an entire off-season to rest. If you win, then get ready to do it again in game 7.
Lastly, conjuring belief in yourself and your prospects to win this game (and the series) is difficult after the game the team just lost. I get that. But, there’s also a mentality of “playing free” that this group needs to try to adopt tonight. They’re not expected to win tonight. It does not matter that they’re they defending champs or that they have LeBron James. No one is picking the Lakers tonight. So, do not burden yourself with the expectations of what things were when this series started (to say nothing of when the season started). All that stuff is out the window now. The Lakers are the underdogs and need to play with the mindset of one. The pressure to win tonight and not have to play a game 7 is on the Suns — or at least that’s what the Lakers need to believe. They need to trick themselves if they have to. Because the last thing this team needs tonight are the stressors and pressure of big picture ideas. No, the Lakers focus is and should be small: win one game.
I understand that much of what I said above may not sound very realistic. The tone of this series has shifted and everything feels like it’s on the Suns’ side. But, I believe the Lakers can do it, I believe they can win this game. I hope that they do too.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.