There will be no shortage of juicy storylines as the Lakers begin their first-round series with the Phoenix Suns on Sunday. From LeBron James facing off with his close friend and the godfather of his children Chris Paul in the NBA playoffs for the first time, to the Lakers being one of the most heavily favored seventh-seeds in NBA history, there is plenty to talk about as these two teams get set to tip.
To discuss all of it, we reached out to Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) of our sister site, Bright Side of the Sun, to give you a more informed perspective about the Suns than I ever could.
Below is our Q and A to get you prepped for what to expect from this team.
This is intentionally open-ended, but what do the Suns do best this year?
The Suns have been a consistent team all season long, and a big part of that has been their collective buy-in to second-year coach Monty Williams and his principles. Rarely will you see any of their players disengaged on the floor and the bench, and that’s a big credit to what Williams has instilled.
A perfect example of this has been the Suns’ changing rotation this season. They haven’t had significant challenges with health, but have altered their backup shooting guard and center positions constantly to adjust for desired execution, both internally and against opposing personnel. We’ve seen players like Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway and Frank Kaminsky play for a stretch of games and then not appear for several, but they have great game plan discipline when they do play.
This cultural foundation has, obviously, been strengthened by Phoenix’s addition of Chris Paul. He played under Williams during his final season with the then-named New Orleans Hornets in 2010-11, and that trust has allowed Paul to lead in a way that each of the Suns’ players have seemed to welcome. This is a very tight group that is locked into their execution on both ends, which is why they won 43 of 56 games to close the regular season and are one of four teams to rank in the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
What are the Suns’ biggest weaknesses?
As beneficial as it has been for Williams to have depth at multiple positions — he said in March that he has not coached a group like the Suns’ bench in terms of its depth of talent — it has caused a rotational conundrum that hasn’t been completely resolved.
Carter has appeared to solidify himself as the Suns’ backup two-guard over the last month-and-a-half with his motor and defense, though he is not as proficient as Galloway as a 3-point shooter or veteran guard E’Twaun Moore with his experience and feel. Frank Kaminsky earned more time than Dario Saric, who has slumped of late, as Phoenix’s backup center, though Saric has also been one of Phoenix’s most efficient players with an expected win differential of plus-12, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The Suns seem confident they can call on multiple players from their bench, but several of them have not played consistently, leading to concerns with continuity and feel within certain lineups.
What do you feel like Monty Williams does best tactically, and do you trust him to come up with some answers for LeBron and AD?
Williams played three of his NBA seasons with the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich, who he has referred to as a big influence in his coaching career. The Suns run a “point-five” offensive scheme in which they look to dribble, shoot or pass within half a second of getting the ball, which has led to them having the second-best field goal percentage in the NBA (49.0) and third-best mark in assists per game (26.9). Phoenix likes to optimize its spacing with four capable shooters on the floor at the same time and has an assortment of pick-and-roll opportunities with Paul and All-Star guard Devin Booker.
Defensively, the Suns rank ninth in the NBA in efficiency, a remarkable feat considering they rated outside the top-25 teams in that statistic in each of the three seasons before Williams’ arrival. Phoenix relies on multiple efforts and prefers to force non-paint 2-point attempts, which it encourages through effective switching and improved play from starting center Deandre Ayton as its anchor.
These principles have keyed the Suns’ success, though they have struggled at times to adapt to opposing personnel. We saw Anthony Davis and the Lakers have a field day against Phoenix in the paint in their last meeting, in large part because the Suns started 6-foot-7 Torrey Craig along with Ayton to match Davis and Drummond. That has been a recurring theme throughout the season that Williams hasn’t seemed to get a full grasp of.
It’s conceivable the Suns will put Mikal Bridges on LeBron James, though LeBron has at least a 40-point weight advantage in that matchup. Jae Crowder has guarded LeBron in the past, but he has played extensively at power forward this season.
The Suns will almost certainly have to go bigger in stretches while balancing a rotation that doesn’t stray away from their identity.
What are the keys for the Suns in the first round?
The Suns traded for Paul this past offseason to take their team to the next level, and they will need his experience now more than ever. He is one of just three Phoenix players who has appeared in at least 30 postseason games during his career, and will have to propel his team on and off the floor in a very challenging first-round series.
Total number of playoff games for the entire Suns roster: 284.— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) May 21, 2021
Total number of playoff games for LeBron James: 260.
Booker has been the face of the Suns’ franchise for the last several years, though questions have existed about his ability to lead a winning team. Now is his chance, and he will have to capitalize on it with the Lakers likely to throw heavy attention at him defensively. He ranks among the top players in the NBA in first-quarter scoring, so hot starts will be necessary for him to get in a rhythm, especially in a situation he has not been in before.
However, the Suns’ backcourt could produce at a high clip and they could still lose this series. A lot of this is going to come down to matchups and how well Phoenix performs in the frontcourt. Ayton will have a lot of responsibility if he guards Davis, and the Suns must find ways to adapt to Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and others if they are going to put up a fight in the paint.
Which Suns role players do you think will be most important in this series?
Backup point guard Cameron Payne had a very strong close to the season, averaging 13.5 points and 3.9 assists over the Suns’ last 11 games including a career-high 24 points against the Lakers on May 9. He will play with some of Phoenix’s starters and lead its bench unit at point guard, and his offense will be critical for Phoenix’s success.
Backup wing Cameron Johnson has not played since May 5 due to a right wrist sprain, but is expected to be back for Game 1 on Sunday. His spacing and 3-point shotmaking are a big boost for the Suns when he’s on, though he slumped over his last eight games played — shooting 15.4 percent from beyond the arc — and will have to break that trend quickly.
If Saric is called upon to play in bigger lineups, he could arguably be Phoenix’s most important player in this series. He contracted COVID-19 earlier in the season and has had challenges with an ankle injury, which have perhaps contributed to his struggles late in the season. When he’s at his best, he can space the floor and is a very good passer offensively, opening up the Suns’ system even more. He can move adequately in pick-and-roll coverage on defense but is not a guy who will play above the rim, so he will have to be locked into his principles to perform his best against the Lakers.
Which Laker most scares you?
Davis, hands down. He’s a complete player on both ends and the Suns don’t have a true answer for him. Not only can he fill it up with his scoring, but he is a very good passer out of the low post, which makes even the Suns double-teaming him a precarious situation with shooters around him. Ayton should be able to provide resistance from a one-on-one perspective, but if he gets in foul trouble or fatigued from his assignment, that could spell a lot of trouble for the Suns.
Who do you think is going to win this series, and in how many games?
Phoenix’s first-round matchup with the Lakers is in some way a microcosm of bad luck for Arizona Sports. The Suns had a fantastic season, looked like the NBA’s best team for stretches and now have to go through the defending champions right away.
Phoenix won’t back down from the challenge, and will almost certainly play with high effort every night, something Los Angeles appeared to lack in the first half against Golden State in the play-in game. But given the Suns’ previous struggles with personnel, lack of collective playoff experience and the challenges of this matchup, it will be very difficult for them to beat Los Angeles four times in seven games.
I’m going to take the Lakers winning this series in six.
Thanks to Trevor for his time, and if you want to read my half of this little exercise previewing this series from a Lakers perspective — including my official SB Nation pick of Lakers in five — check out Bright Side of the Sun.
Notes and Updates
- LeBron James will not be suspended after the NBA says he violated health and safety protocols by attending a small, outdoor and tested event to promote his tequila brand. The league instead issued James and the Lakers a warning ahead of Game 1 of their first-round series in Phoenix, which is expected to feature 11,000 fans inside their arena.
- Both he and Anthony Davis are listed as probable for Game 1.
The Lakers' injury report has AD and LeBron both listed as probable. pic.twitter.com/D7YzhzYh1z— We Believe Faigen (@hmfaigen) May 23, 2021
- Want to win Lakers’ season tickets? Just get vaccinated this weekend at one of these select clinics for a chance.
- Ahead of this playoff run, I wanted to write about Lakers assistant coach and player development guru Phil Handy, who is looking to go to his sixth NBA Finals in a row. His contributions to this team should be appreciated, and his fingerprints were on display for a national television audience this week.
- Also, if you’re looking for a fun read ahead of the playoffs, check out our own Ali Behpoornia’s investigation into why the Lakers are where shooters’ percentages go to die. Maybe not having homecourt advantage could be a good thing for the purple and gold!
And finally, here is a full schedule for this series:
The Lakers and Suns will tip off at 12:30 p.m. PT on Sunday in Phoenix. That game will be televised exclusively on ABC.