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Message received: Suns hear Lakers ‘loud and clear’ in loss to champs

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) grabs a rebound next to Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

With four games left in the regular season, the Phoenix Suns’ most likely matchup in the first round of the playoffs is the Los Angeles Lakers.

Phoenix’s 123-110 loss to Los Angeles on Sunday night was about it being an off-night in just about all aspects for the Suns, but there was also plenty of evidence for why it’s a problematic matchup.

A sloppy first quarter on both ends resulted in only 19 points for the Suns, creating an 11-point deficit and a required chase of the game the rest of the way.

“The reality is this is two games in a row where teams have come out with playoff intensity and we haven’t started games well … From an intensity standpoint, I thought we were way behind,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

The Suns trailed by double digits five minutes in. After they got it down to nine with 6:31 left in the second quarter, the Lakers would lead by at least 10 or more points until a late surge by the Suns in the fourth quarter that got it down to nine again with 4:32 remaining. Phoenix hit 10 straight shots to get the deficit down from 23 to seven, but missed a few open three-pointers to get any closer.

The performance by the Lakers was a slap in the face to anyone who needed it, reminding the NBA they are the defending champs. Even without LeBron James, Dennis Schroder and Kyle Kuzma, it was some of the best Los Angeles has looked all year.

Williams thinks how the standings line up currently had something to do with it.

“We have to understand that teams are sending a message this time of the year. We played playoff teams,” he said. “We played a team we might see in the first round, and I felt like they were sending us a message tonight. And I think our guys heard it loud and clear.”

It was the first game in weeks where both Devin Booker and Chris Paul did not play well, and the Lakers’ league-best defense deserves some credit for that.

Paul finished with 13 points, 10 assists, four steals and five turnovers while Booker scrounged together 21 points on a 5-for-14 shooting night, thanks largely to an 11-of-13 number at the foul line. It was only the fifth game all year Paul has committed at least five turnovers in and also the fifth for Booker in which he had five or less total field goals.

Like the first matchup, a Suns win in which Booker was ejected, Los Angeles helped heavily off Phoenix’s supporting cast to limit the All-Star duo.

The results for the Suns were sensational the first go-around, with the five-man group of Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Abdel Nader and Dario Saric combining for 72 points and 14 three-pointers.

On Sunday, however, the Lakers were getting to Booker and Paul enough that they threw off their rhythm and the ball rotations the Suns are used to.

At the end of three quarters, Phoenix as a team had only attempted 15 total 3s.

The Lakers were throwing everything in Booker’s and Paul’s way.

Booker after the game used a label he has in the past of “junk defense,” some of the “run and jump” looks he’s seen before where teams simply don’t allow him to do anything with the ball, schemes he said they’ll look back at on film and figure out.

He noted some changes from the Lakers’ defense, including blitzing from different spots, such as even the strong-side corner.

Los Angeles started their supersized frontcourt of Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis, and the Suns never had an answer for it.

Davis, in particular, reminded everyone why he’s a top player. He recorded a season-high 42 points, plus 12 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals.

Williams did not like his team’s effort at throwing Davis off.

“I just didn’t think he felt us enough,” Williams said. “I thought there were times where he was just looking to the other side as opposed to having a hand in his face, even with a guy on him. I just thought he was really comfortable tonight.”

Torrey Craig started on Davis and tried to front him as much as possible, but Phoenix’s execution of the gameplan was off. Rotations were all out of whack, either giving Davis too much space or making the ball rotations too simple for the Lakers to get wide-open triples, as Williams referenced.

In the second half, Williams put Deandre Ayton on Davis and started with Saric over Craig, but that didn’t help all that much either.

Ayton figures to be the primary defender on Davis in a hypothetical playoff matchup, but that of course leaves the question of who defends Drummond.

On a few of those possessions, the Suns sent double-teams to Davis, but it was with both bigs, so the Lakers’ other big would grab the offensive rebound and put it in.

With all those factors mixed together, the demand on Ayton defensively and the Suns’ primary ball-handlers unable to find a flow, Ayton was unable to make an impact on his own. He posted six points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block on 3-of-3 shooting in 33 minutes.

Cameron Payne was one of the few bright spots for the Suns, leading that attempted comeback in the fourth quarter. He had a career-high 24 points.

There were also some circumstantial variables that didn’t do any favors for the Suns.

The Lakers entered Sunday 22nd leaguewide in three-point percentage at 35.2% and shot 13-of-30 (43.3%) — and that was after missing their last six of the ballgame.

It was a light whistle too that constantly sounded off, a benefit to Los Angeles’ size advantage and trouble for the Suns, who rank 29th in the NBA for free throw rate. There were 50 total fouls in the game and the Lakers converted on 32 of 41 free throw attempts while the Suns were 21 of 25.

The night ended with the Suns two games back of the Utah Jazz for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. With four games left for both teams, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked toward a second-place finish in the regular season for Phoenix.

What I’m about to say was always the case before Sunday’s loss, but given the number of questions left for the Suns to answer about a Lakers matchup, even without James on the floor this time, there is no worse potential opponent for them in the playoffs.

And entering the last week of the regular season, there sit the Lakers in the seventh spot, projected to face the Suns in the first round.


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