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NBA Playoffs previews: Suns vs Lakers

 The Phoenix Suns may have finished second in the west, but they have drawn the most unfortunate of first-round playoff battles as they get set to square off with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

A three-point victory over the Golden State Warriors in the play-in game, with LeBron hitting a monster three to seal the deal, means the Suns face a difficult challenge.

The Lakers are still one of the best teams in the NBA when at full health, but have spent large chunks of the season without their two key men; LeBron and Anthony Davis. 

James only managed 45 of the 72 regular-season games, while Davis played even fewer with just 36. It’s a minor miracle Los Angeles managed to finish where they did with a record of 42- 30, just nine games back from the second-placed Suns.

The Suns, who finished with 51-21, just a game back from the Utah Jazz’s NBA-best record, deserve plenty of credit for what they have done as well, particularly given they missed the playoffs last season.

The influence of Chris Paul has been the key factor for the Suns, with the veteran point guard contributing strongly at both ends of the floor to put up 8.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. His efforts with the ball in hand have transformed the attacking firepower for Phoenix, with Devin Booker, in particular, going from strength to strength.

Booker’s 25.6 points per game have been the catalyst for the Suns to hold the NBA’s seventh-best attack, fourth-best points differential and, more importantly, second-best overall shooting percentage.

It’s the shooting percentage of 49% and assists from Paul that will prove critical for the Suns in this series as they go up against the Lakers, who, with attacking force all over the floor, don’t need any extra possessions, but have also played lockdown defence throughout the season and, for the most part, have been very hard to score against.

In fact, despite missing their key men for so much of the season, it can be argued the Lakers have kept themselves in the hunt thanks to their defence. Conceding just 106.8 points per game, Los Angeles is only behind the New York Knicks on that end of the court.

That is built on their almost eight steals and five blocks per game, while they have played a structured brand of defence which has been interchangeable as injuries have changed the formation of players on the court.

With the defence working a treat for Los Angeles, bringing James and Davis back into the team is a huge boost offensively. The duo has averaged 25 and 21.8 points per game, respectively, while James also facilitates the ball movement with almost eight assists per game. This frees up space for other reliable shooters like Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, who is one of the league’s most efficient shooters, his 13.5 points per game coming at over 62%. 

With solid role players and two stars leading the way, the Suns defence will be under a mountain of pressure. They may have the league’s seventh-best defensive record, almost three points more per game than that of the Lakers, but it’s hard to see that record getting any better with the talent bearing down on them.

Verdict: Technically, the Lakers winning this series would be an upset. They may not have a home-court advantage, but man for man, if they stay healthy, they have the stronger roster and higher talent ceiling. It’s a tough break for Phoenix given the season they put together, but they are going to be bounced out in the first round.

Lakers in 6. $1.81 at PlayUp


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