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What the Suns’ postseason collapse says about the Lakers’ past, present and future

While the Suns lack an all-time great to take them through the playoffs and into the promised land, the Lakers and Mavs both have that guy.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Back in March, when the Lakers still, at least externally, projected a spirit of optimism about a late-season playoff push, Anthony Davis popped off to reporters about his feelings as to whether the Lakers would have won their first round series against the Suns last season had he not injured his groin. When asked if his injury was the main reason the Lakers lost, Davis said, “It was…We know that. They know that…They got away with one.”

That night, when the two teams faced off for the second-to-last time this past regular season, the Suns put the boots to ‘em with a 48-minute butt-whooping that started with a 48-point Suns first quarter and ended with a 29-point margin of victory for Phoenix.

At the time, the Suns’ regular-season dominance — they won all four contests against the Lakers last season, and seven in a row if including the final three games of the aforementioned first round series — seemed to suggest that Phoenix would have won any series against the Lakers regardless of who they’d been able to drag out onto the floor. In fact, Booker clapped back after the game at his fellow Kentucky Wildcat’s comments, stating, “If ‘ifs’ were a fifth, we’d all be drunk.”

However, given the state of the Suns in the wake of their embarrassing second round exit that saw them get trounced by the Dallas Mavericks in a Game 7 that saw their deficit balloon to as many as 46 points, Anthony Davis’ comments sound a bit more reasonable in retrospect. Having lost series in each of the last two playoffs where they opened up a 2-0 series lead, and failing to beat a single team whose best players were healthy all series, the Suns’ regular-season record now inevitably comes with an asterisk implying their pattern of postseason shortcomings.

The playoffs, as my Lakers Multiverse co-host Michael Corvo loves to stress, are a wholly different beast from the regular season. And given their postseason record over the past two seasons, the Suns have proven that what works in one doesn’t always fly in the other.

Primarily, the Suns’ moment-to-moment focus in the regular season, driven by Chris Paul’s hyper-attention to detail, typically outmatches that of their opponent. In the heightened tensions of the postseason, that edge tends to erode. Defenses typically get stauncher and start to take away what’s easy, while offenses get better at targeting the opposing team’s weakest link.

In his games against the Suns, Luka Doncic proved that the Suns’ weakest defensive link was often Chris Paul.

The Mavs’ relentless attack prevented the Suns from hiding Paul from on-ball defensive duties, creating easier looks, wearing him down physically, and even getting him into foul trouble in the series’ latter games.

In the three games against the full-strength Lakers in the 2020-21 first round, Chris Paul scored no more than seven points on worse than 50% shooting from the floor. While the Lakers didn’t target Paul defensively as much as the Mavs, leaving him relatively free from falling into foul trouble, he wasn’t able to have nearly the same offensive impact as he did in the regular season against the NBA’s No. 1 defense in 2021. And while it’s true that a shoulder injury hampered his play in that series, he was able to score 18 points on 15 shots in Game 4, and 12 of those came in the second half, after AD’s injury forced his own exit. Despite his injury, Paul was able to step up in Davis’ absence, just enough to take control of the series, in a way he simply couldn’t when the Lakers had their defensive superstar in the game.

Devin Booker’s inability to overcome the Mavs’ defense on his own in their second round exit might be even more damning to the notion of the Suns as having a championship-caliber team. Although he mostly dominated the Lakers, scoring 30-plus in four of six games on stellar efficiency, his impact felt inconsequential to the series’ outcome until after Anthony Davis’ injury, capped off by his 47-point clinic in the series’ closeout game.

Against the Mavs, Booker only cleared 30 points twice, and scored 30 total points in the Suns’ Game 6 and 7 losses. While Booker is undoubtedly a really good NBA player, he’s a bit further from the undeniably great superstardom many of his supporters seem to have attributed to him. For a guy who finished fourth in this season’s Most Valuable Player voting, his inability to assert his will upon his team’s biggest games of the season was frankly jarring.

As perhaps the game’s highest-level tough shot maker, Devin Booker earns his living on a diet of contested jump-shots and trips to the charity stripe. He is an excellent floor reader, connecting passer, and relocater, but doesn’t have the same kind of heliocentric impact on his team in the way a Luka Doncic does. The offense doesn’t run through Booker, though it is often run in order to get the ball to him with an opportunity to score. Though it’s absolutely something he does in order to get shots for himself and teammates, advantage creation is a smaller portion of Booker’s offensive package than it is for other more ball-dominant playmaking superstars. Since he’s reliant upon the team’s system to get him in positions to score, some of his output dried up when the Mavs started taking away the Suns offense’s initial advantages. With Paul, Cam Payne, and Landry Shamet all incapable of getting Booker going, the Suns stopped scoring the way they did in the regular season.

In stark contrast, two stars who finished directly below Booker in the voting for the regular season’s most prestigious individual award played their best basketball when their teams needed them the most at the top of the key, spamming high pick and rolls on repeat on their way to victories. Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic’s superior size and on-ball shot creation out of switch-hunting isolations enabled undeniable offensive performances in Game 6 and 7 wins, with each under-25 wunderkind scoring at least 68 points across their series’ final two contests.

Due to Chris Paul’s eroding effectiveness as a season winds down, and Booker’s inability to get it done entirely on his own, the Suns may be destined for postseason underperformance without some significant change to their roster. Devin Booker can say I’m drunk, but the Suns’ duo’s repeated shortcomings suggest that IF Anthony Davis didn’t go down in Game 4, the Lakers would have dispatched the Suns on their way to competing for their second straight title.

Looking at the way in which Luka’s totality of talent dwarfed that of the Suns’ stars, it’s easier to imagine the Lakers looking more like the series’ winner than the loser next season. By putting the ball in the hands of their top dog and removing their underperforming second banana (Kristaps Porzingis), the Mavs have been able to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts. With the offensive hierarchy clarified, Luka’s Mavs simply make sense on a possession-to-possession basis in the way that basically every LeBron team had until he joined forces with Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers failed to generate the clarity of identity they needed to achieve at a high level in a large part due to the muddiness of roles amongst the trio of team leaders. Davis’ inconsistent availability left LeBron with a bunch of ill-fitting pieces whose chemistry was regularly interrupted by the unpredictably spastic (and predictably inflexible) play of Westbrook. Remove the ill-fitting cog, and it’s much easier to imagine the Lakers’ supporting cast looking a lot closer to the one the Mavs cobbled together.

Without understating just how awesome Jalen Brunson has been for the entirety of the playoffs, and Spencer Dinwiddie was in Game 7, Anthony Davis is on a wholly different level as a two-way, all-time great. The Lakers could certainly use some more secondary shot creation than what they get from LeBron James alone, but hopefully Kendrick Nunn and any potential returns from a hypothetical Westbrook trade can take up that mantle, with Davis’ contributions taking the Lakers to a level even these Mavs can’t reach. Dorian Finney-Smith too, has been excellent, but I’m still taking Anthony Davis and Kendrick Nunn as an ancillary shot-making and defensive duo over Brunson and DFS — as much as I personally love both of their games.

Jason Kidd had perennially poor defenders like Davis Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie locking down the NBA’s most unstoppable offensive machine like they’d been doing it all their careers in part due to creative scheming, but every scheme fails without elite communication and effort, two facets of team defense that plagued the Lakers all year.

With a healthy Anthony Davis, the team should again be able to get the most out of what still appears to be the top duo in professional basketball. And by re-clarifying the basketball order of operations again to first LeBron, then everyone else, assuming they metaphorically eject Westbrook into the sun (like the Mavs did KP), the Lakers will be able to get more out of less, just like LeBron’s teams always had prior to his most recently miserable campaign.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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