The Lakers and Suns are all evened up at 2-2 in the first round as the NBA playoffs continue, which makes Game 5 potentially pivotal. Whoever wins will have at least two tries to close this thing out, and whoever loses will need to win their next two games in a row to stay alive.
So with that in mind, let’s catch up on everything you need to know about the banged-up Lakers as they get set for the biggest game of their season so far.
Will Anthony Davis play?
Probably not. The latest reports are that Davis is “unlikely” to play in Game 5 with a Grade 1 groin strain. But while Lakers head coach Frank Vogel confirmed Davis’ diagnosis at practice on Monday, he also left the door theoretically open for his star to play.
“He’s literally day-to-day,” Vogel said. “We’re going to treat him overnight, do everything we can to get it feeling better, and we’ll see where he’s at tomorrow.”
But the team doesn’t appear to be pressuring Davis to suit up, despite the stakes of this game. He already impressed his teammates with his willingness to play through the left knee sprain that was nagging him heading into Game 4.
“He wants to play, like everybody in this locker room. He’s got passion for this game. He wants to play. He wants to help us get a win,” said Lakers guard Dennis Schröder. “He really wanted to be out there. He gave it everything he had, his last percent, and just tried to make it work for us, and it means a lot to me, the organization, teammates. It means a lot. It’s great to see.”
However, those exact qualities are why Vogel didn’t want to over-read into Davis’ mood at practice before the team flew to Phoenix.
“I’d rather not get into that,” Vogel said. “These guys, they’re great competitors. They’re always going to say ‘I’m ignoring this, I’m gonna be in there.’
“That’s what his mindset is, like any competitor,” Vogel continued. “We’ll see what the groin feels like tomorrow and make a smart decision, but he’s in good spirits.”
Who will start if Davis can’t play?
Vogel, who has become known for almost never revealing his starting lineup until the league-mandated 30 minutes prior to tip off, laughed when ESPN’s Dave McMenamin asked him if he was leaning towards starting Kyle Kuzma in Game 5 after he did so to take Davis’ place in the second half of Game 4.
“You think I’m going to give you the direction I’m going to go?” Vogel asked, smiling in a sort of disbelief. “I’m not going to give you the direction I’m going to go in Game 5.”
That’s no surprise, but Vogel’s choice of starter to replace Davis might be, because it may not be Kuzma. During the regular season, it was Markieff Morris who replaced Davis while he missed months with Achilles and calf injuries. While the veteran reserve has been lightly used in the playoffs so far — he’s played exactly 12 minutes total in two games, posting a plus-minus of 0 — he might be called upon again to replace Davis here.
It’s not just that Vogel has already asked him to do so once that’s served as the evidence. Morris also tweeted this essentially right after practice ended:
Opportunity..— Keef Morris (@Keefmorris) May 31, 2021
We’ll see what happens, but Morris is probably the safest guess right now.
How big of a load can LeBron James carry?
After the Lakers lost on Sunday, James was confident he could still give the team as much as they needed from him if Davis were to miss time.
“These shoulders were built for a reason,” James said then. “If it takes me putting some more on top of them, so be it. Win, lose or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”
But how big of a challenge? Without Davis, does Vogel feel like he needs to play his star 40-plus minutes? To approach Game 5 like a Game 7?
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to win this game. That’s the simplest way to put it,” Vogel said. “If he plays 48 minutes, he’s not going to be fresh at crunch time, and we need him to be fresh at crunch time. So we’ll manage accordingly, and we’ll do everything possible to win this game.”
That might included playing James as much as his 36 year old body can handle, because the Lakers have been a mess without him on the floor in the playoffs so far. The Lakers have been outscored by a team-worst 37.1 points per 100 possessions when James is on the bench, compared to outscoring the Suns by 12 points per 100 possessions when he plays.
But that noted, Vogel feels like playing James a ton isn’t necessarily the only solution for that stat.
“The first thing is that we have to win the minutes when he’s off,” Vogel said. “There’s a lot of things to be looked into to try and create the right environment for those guys to succeed.”
To that end, Schröder said that some of the biggest things the coaching staff emphasized in practice was having “unselfishness without the ball” in Game 5.
“Make the cut for somebody else to get open,” Schröder said, giving an example.
If the Lakers can’t suddenly figure out a way to become a good team without James and Davis on the floor, however, then it seems like a safe bet James will play more. How much more is the question.
Will Kentavious Caldwell-Pope return?
Caldwell-Pope was a game-time decision for Game 4, ultimately sitting out with his left knee contusion. He is being listed as questionable for this one with the same injury. In some rare positive health news for the Lakers, though, he says he’s feeling better.
“I’m fine,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I wanted to play, man, it was just 50/50. Felt a little soreness in my knee, so I kind of called it.”
Caldwell-Pope was able to get a light workout in at the team’s Monday practice without discomfort, however.
“I felt fine. No pain,” Caldwell-Pope said. “So we’ve just got to see. I’m still day-to-day. I feel soreness here and there, but we’ll see. I felt good when I woke up.”
As long as that’s the case tomorrow, it’s probably a good bet he’ll play in Game 5.
What else do we need to know ahead of this one?
The Lakers and Suns will tip off at 7 p.m. in Phoenix on Tuesday. The game will be televised nationally on TNT, and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.