As things stand right now, the Los Angeles Lakers (28-14) are the third seed in the Western Conference, trailing the Phoenix Suns (27-13) by just half a game. In a different world, this could be a second-round playoff matchup if both teams won in the first round and the current standings held.
We don’t live in that world, though. After LeBron James suffered a high ankle sprain against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday that will keep him out indefinitely, this could be a first-round matchup, depending on how far the Lakers tumble in the standings while James is gone. They’re only 2.5 games out of sixth place right now, four games out of seventh, six out of eighth and ninth and eight games out of 10th. Losing enough games to become a play-in team may feel unlikely, but if James misses several weeks and Anthony Davis continues to take more time, it is entirely possible the Lakers may have to scratch and claw for seeding at the end of the season.
NBA injury analyst Jeff Stotts reports that “over the last seven 82-game seasons, the average missed time for an isolated high ankle sprain is ~10 games.” The Lakers’ next 10 opponents are the Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, LA Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat. That would be an absolutely brutal stretch to lose James for all of, but at this point he’ll be back when he’s back. How far the Lakers drop in the meantime will depend on how much this team can lean on their supporting players like Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schröder. And they’ll get their first look at life without James against Phoenix on Sunday, which is a tougher matchup than it would have been in prior seasons.
The Suns have won 10 of their last 13 games, and rank third in the NBA in defensive efficiency and eighth in offensive efficiency. Heading into the season, many had them pegged as a playoff contender, but it now appears they might be a real threat to go on a bit of a run when they get there.
The ways the Suns have had success this year — other than how good they’ve been defensively — won’t surprise you. Devin Booker ranks 16th in the NBA in scoring with 25.1 points per game, and Chris Paul is his usual picture of efficiency, adding 16 points and 8.7 assists per game (fifth in the NBA) while shooting 48.8% overall and 38.1% from deep.
Perhaps most amazing and indicative of the Suns’ success, however, is this stat: Of all the players to play more than 100 minutes for Phoenix, none have a negative net rating. That’s incredible consistency across a bunch of different lineups for a team with quite a few young players that have never played for a good team before.
Can the Lakers get past the gut punch of losing James and find the legs to compete against a Suns team that had the day off while the Lakers played the first game of this back-to-back? It feels unlikely, but this team is at least better positioned with scorers to fight in games without James and Davis than last team’s roster was. We’ll see how it goes, and get our first look at their adjustment process tomorrow.
Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. PT on Sunday. The game will be shown nationally on NBA TV, and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.
Notes and Updates
- The Lakers have not released their injury report yet, but we will update this when they do. James and Davis will obviously be out, but beyond that it remains to be seen who can play. Their starter at center is a mystery, because Damian Jones’ second 10-day contract expired on Saturday. If Marc Gasol still can’t go, then Montrezl Harrell may have to start at the five — something he ironically last did against the Suns before requesting to return to the bench.