The Lakers flat out didn’t show up against the Suns in Game 5, and now face an elimination game in the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Nothing really went well for the Lakers in the blowout, 115-85 loss, and they have a lot to correct in order to potentially be competitive in Game 6. Here are three takeaways from a game this team would rather soon forget.
The Lakers have to take open 3-pointers
The Suns have no respect for any of the Lakers’ shooters. Phoenix has been packing the paint against L.A. for five games, daring the Lakers to cause any damage from outside, and mostly winning that gamble. Over the first four games, even though the series was tied, the Lakers were shooting 29.1 percent on 127 attempts from 3-point range.
At some point, those percentages have to revert back to the mean, but the Lakers are in their heads now — they weren’t even taking wide-open threes. In the first quarter alone, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol and Kyle Kuzma passed up on at least five separate 3-point attempts, and no, those decisions did not lead to higher-quality shots for the Lakers. What instead happens is the Lakers get closer to a shot-clock violation, LeBron James is forced to drive into a crowded paint, and the team doesn’t score.
Caldwell-Pope is clearly still dealing with lower-leg issues, which may explain some of his reticence, but the rest of the Lakers have to find their confidence and start firing. The one thing that is still working offensively is James creating open looks for shooters. His teammates have to reward him by at least taking those shots.
The offensive lulls continue
The Lakers were up five in the first quarter when the Suns went on a 16-0 run. That was a 3:42 scoreless stretch. Then, in an eight-minute stretch spanning the first and second quarters, the Lakers did not score a single field goal. Kuzma and Markieff Morris each hit lone free throws (meaning they combined to miss a pair as well), while Phoenix scored 24 points. That 24-2 run over 8:08 of game time ended with a Talen Horton-Tucker putback on a missed free throw of his own. At that point, the Lakers were down 24 points, and the game was already lost. The Suns responded with a three, and the Lakers never got closer than 25 points again.
The blame deserves to be spread around. The shooters were hesitant, and James is still lacking some burst after his ankle injury. Frank Vogel kept Montrezl Harrell glued to the bench during the competitive portion of the game, even though he’s one of the lone Lakers who can actually get his own shot. That left Schröder as the secondary shot creator behind James, and it’s clear that Schröder has not been the same player since returning from the health and safety protocols.
Including both playoffs and regular season, Dennis Schröder has shot 32.8% from the field over 7 games since returning from his second bout in the health and safety protocols.— We Believe Faigen (@hmfaigen) June 2, 2021
That is 10% worse than the 43.8% he was shooting in the 59 prior games.
Schröder shot 0-of-9 from the field, including four missed threes, and that doesn’t even account for all the shots he chose not to take, suffocating the offense in the process. Perhaps more damning than Schröder’s inability to score was his failure to create opportunities for his teammates. He had one assist in 26 minutes, and the only redeeming quality of his offensive stat line was the lack of turnovers.
The lone Laker who looked comfortable attacking the Suns defense (other than James) was Horton-Tucker, who managed to get to the rim despite the team’s lack of spacing. Vogel might need a shorter hook for Schröder in Game 6 in favor of THT. Ever since the preseason, Horton-Tucker has shown an ability to attack the basket against Phoenix. The Lakers will need more of that to avoid these patented scoring droughts.
Defensive discipline was absent
The Lakers will always have their offensive challenges, especially with Anthony Davis unavailable, but they lost this game because they didn’t bring the requisite force on the other end of the floor.
Andre Drummond played in too deep of a drop on Devin Booker pick-and-rolls and handoffs, allowing Booker the space to walk into jumpers or floaters. That type of coverage negates Drummond’s quickness, which is his best defensive asset. The defense didn’t get any better when Gasol replaced Drummond, as Booker went after Gasol’s lack of foot speed on three consecutive possessions.
First, Booker found Ayton when Gasol came up too high on the screen, and Gasol couldn’t rotate back to Ayton fast enough. Then, Booker went after Gasol himself when Caldwell-Pope got caught behind Ayton in the pick-and-roll, and the Suns guard did the same thing on the ensuing possession when the Lakers were a little out of sorts in semi-transition.
Those miscues all came in the first quarter, and the Lakers didn’t get any better as the game wore on. Cameron Payne got into the lane at will and the help was never there. The Suns scored more than 30 points in each of the first two quarters, and it wasn’t because the two teams were playing at a fast pace. L.A. only forced Phoenix into four turnovers, and only one in the first half when the game was decided. The defense that defined the Lakers a year ago, and even during this regular season, was nowhere to be found. This group simply doesn’t have the offensive firepower to contend in a shootout.
All of these problems have plagued the Lakers throughout the series, and are only exacerbated without Davis available, which is why the Lakers now find themselves on the brink of elimination.