The Lakers dropped their first game of the 2021 playoffs, falling 99-90 against the Phoenix Suns in a contest that wasn’t even as competitive as the final score might have suggested. That means there’s plenty of room for improvement before Game 2 on Tuesday.
Here are three takeaways from L.A.’s Game 1 loss.
DeAndre Ayton was the best big in the game
Much ink has been spilled regarding the Lakers center rotation, but Game 1 was the first time in a long time that an opposing center was actually the best big on the floor. Just look at this perfect shot chart for Deandre Ayton, who had his way with the Lakers defense.
The Suns carved the Lakers up with the pick-and-roll for the majority of the game, and Ayton was the beneficiary of smart passing from Devin Booker and Chris Paul. But he was also more physical than the L.A. bigs. Ayton rolled harder to the basket and got good positioning, allowing him to finish 10 of his 11 shots. He rebounded his only miss and scored on that possession anyway.
Ayton had 8 offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points for Phoenix. In total, the Suns rebounded 34.7% of their own misses in this game. For context, the best team in the league in that stat this season (the New Orleans Pelicans) topped out at a 28.6% offensive rebounding rate, per Cleaning the Glass.
Ayton also excelled in an area that Lakers bigs traditionally dominate: transition. He beat the Lakers down the floor, whether that was Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, or even Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers can’t let Ayton be that comfortable in every facet of the game. L.A. is supposed to beat teams with its physicality, but Ayton made sure that Phoenix had the edge in that department in Game 1.
The Suns also had success with Ayton guarding Davis. It would be one thing if Ayton managed to take Drummond out of the game considering those two players are more evenly matched physically, but Davis is supposed to be able to use his length and quickness to beat Ayton to his spots. That didn’t really happen on Sunday. Ayton got in Davis’ airspace on jumpers, kept him off the glass, and generally made his life difficult.
The direction of that matchup has to change in Game 2 for the Lakers to have a chance.
The Lakers need a new plan on Devin Booker
Booker is exactly the type of player who tends to give the Lakers trouble; a wing scorer with some size who can handle. L.A. has really good perimeter defenders in Alex Caruso and, to a lesser extent, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but they tend to be overmatched against players with a little more size and strength. The most extreme example of this obviously comes against the Clippers, but Booker is just big enough to give those two guards problems. His game is also predicated upon getting downhill, and Caruso and KCP are better on the perimeter than in the paint.
The most physical defender the Lakers have is Wesley Matthews, who played for less than 12 minutes and has historically struggled against Booker. Kyle Kuzma, who has been tasked as a wing stopper in certain situations, also wasn’t ready for primetime on either end of the floor.
In lieu of an individual stopper, the Lakers tried to double Booker on occasion and force him to be playmaker. That didn’t work either, as Booker consistently made the right reads to find his shooters in the corners.
Booker finished with a game-high 34 points (no Lakers player even got to 20) and eight assists that resulted in 19 points. It wasn’t just the guards who deserve blame for his outburst, as the backline rotations for the Lakers also left something to be desired. Every time Booker came off a double screen, he had daylight in front of him. He’s an All-Star, and will get his, but the Lakers have to make his job more challenging.
The Lakers have to make more shots
It was easy to compare this game to the playoff opener a year ago in the bubble, when L.A. shot 35.1% from the field and 5-32 on 3-pointers. The Lakers did better this time around with 43.4% shooting overall and seven made threes, but the offense still let them down. Part of it was just missing open jumpers: Caldwell-Pope is a better shooter than his 2-9 performance (1-7 from beyond the arc) would suggest, and his missed transition three that would have cut the lead to six near the end of the third loomed large, as the Lakers never got that close again.
The Lakers deliberately leave some of their best shooters on the bench, namely Ben McLemore and Marc Gasol, so struggling from beyond the arc is baked into their lineup construction. Even so, below 30% (7-26) from 3-point range isn’t going to cut it, especially since the team continues to struggle from the foul line and was outscored in the paint and in transition. A non-LeBron James Laker didn’t make a three until 7:17 was left to play in the third quarter.
The volume of threes the Lakers put up was also a bit concerning. They’re not one of the more three-happy teams in the league, but they do take at least 31 3-pointers per game. A lot of their threes tend to come from penetration and kickouts; that wasn’t happening as much with Ayton single-covering whoever the big in the paint was, and with James struggling to get to the rim due to a lack of burst. As helpful as it is for James to hit threes of his own, his early deference to jumpers indicated an unwillingness to get to the basket. If he’s not living in the paint, it’s hard for this team to even create good shots, let alone make them.