How Suns match up with West play-in’s Lakers and Warriors
The most exciting game of the NBA season to this point comes Wednesday night in the Western Conference play-in between the No. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers and No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors.
The game does not matter more for anyone outside those two teams than the Phoenix Suns. They’ll get the winner in the first round of the playoffs.
So how should the game be looked at from a Suns perspective?
Here are a few things to know about how Phoenix matches up against each team, how their prior meetings this season went and more:
Los Angeles Lakers
Couple of obvious ones first.
The Lakers are the worst matchup of the two teams. Obviously.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Obviously.
Defending champs. Obviously.
Now that we’re past that, I’ve been shouting from the heavens that the Lakers are a problematic matchup for the Suns because of Los Angeles’ defense that finished No. 1 in defensive rating this season.
In Phoenix’s first win over Los Angeles, a March 2 meeting right before the All-Star break with James playing and no Davis, the Lakers heavily committed resources to taking Chris Paul and Devin Booker out of the game. And as an extension of that, Los Angeles was cutting off the rolls of Deandre Ayton, too.
The Suns got one of their best victories of the year in that game because the supporting cast made the Lakers pay. Their first four field goals of the game were all built off that extra attention toward Paul and Booker, plus a combination of not-so-air-tight rotations by the Lakers and great Suns ball movement.
Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Abdel Nader and Dario Saric combined for 14 three-pointers and 72 points.
In the last matchup, a Suns loss on May 9 featuring Davis without James, the Lakers’ defense tightened up a bit while still forcing those supplementary options to beat them.
They got a bit crazy with it, helping to an extreme extent:
Outright doubling the Suns’ All-Star backcourt at end-of-clock situations was standard:
We’re just gonna double both of them pic.twitter.com/jMu7Hq2ZM9
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) May 10, 2021
The lack of a seamless transition from good defense to good offense for the Suns really hurt them, as they scored only 47 points in the first half. A career-high 24 points from Cam Payne was the only reason that game got close late.
As for the other side of the ball — the Lakers’ offense and Suns’ defense — James and Davis didn’t both play against Phoenix in any of the three meetings this season. Not a ton to take from it, well, besides James having 38 points, five rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block on 16-of-24 shooting in his one game and Anthony Davis producing 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks for his lone go. They aren’t bad, ya know?
Something to keep an eye on against Golden State on Wednesday and a question for the Lakers all postseason will be how they use their center rotation.
Davis at the 5 is when Los Angeles is at its best, but the Lakers have only played 87 minutes of lineups that feature Davis without Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol or Montrezl Harrell.
Sure, there’s a size advantage there for the Lakers when they go big that will present the Suns issues, but it’s an area Phoenix can exploit too.
While Gasol by a large margin is the most fundamentally sound defender of the three, he doesn’t move all that well anymore at the age of 36. Drummond has his moments, but can be a target, something the smaller and more athletic Harrell has consistently been the past two seasons.
All said, though, it would still be a rough draw for the Suns.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors team we imagined with Stephen Curry putting everyone in his backpack and carrying that load as far as he could isn’t necessarily all that far from the truth, but it’s important to understand Golden State’s current form.
Since mid-April and being able to embrace more small-ball without injured rookie James Wiseman, the Warriors over the past 19 games are ninth in offensive rating and tops for both defensive and net rating.
The Suns got a first-hand look at this high-level play, losing a game they should have won on May 11.
It was a rare lack of execution on Phoenix’s part. The Suns used a unique gameplan against a great opponent.
Phoenix might be the best team in the league at scrambling to recoveries after overplaying a certain possession on purpose, but the ability to snap back into place was not there all night. They did not operate with enough urgency when the job was done on Curry, who was 7-of-22 in the game.
The Warriors’ ball movement will force a team to make multiple efforts. Even a few may not be enough.
The Suns collapsed by the end of the game, getting lost on key rotations.
I’m not sure what happened here between Booker and Ayton, but it put Crowder in an awful position on the back-side.
Those are the types of defensive possessions we got used to seeing from the Suns prior to this season. Now, we almost never see them.
Even with all that went wrong, the Suns were in that game because of Booker’s and Paul’s play offensively. Golden State’s Draymond Green will be First Team All-Defense again this year, but he can only check one guy. And of course, if Green is on the ball, that means his tremendous help defense is off the table a lot too.
He spent a good amount of time on Paul earlier this month. That’s a 1-on-1 both of them know well, and you could see Green trying to stay in Paul’s space while not getting close enough to fall for some of his tricks.
Kent Bazemore got some run in that matchup too, and let’s just say Paul wouldn’t have issues with him in a series.
Where Bridges’ quickness and length make him as ideal as one can be in defending Curry, the Warriors don’t really have that guy for either Booker or Paul.
Andrew Wiggins is having a great year and has been just that on defense this year, but he’s got no shot on Booker.
The Warriors also used Bazemore and Juan Toscano-Anderson as agitators, grabbing at Booker and bumping him to try and get in his head.
Good luck with that!
This is a good exercise to emphasize the Warriors’ lack of depth as well. Perhaps the injured former Sun Kelly Oubre Jr. would be back for the start of the playoffs, and he’d be a good extra body to throw at both guys. But for now, Golden State is eight-deep and unhealthily reliant on Curry offensively, who Bridges does as good of a job on as anyone can.
While the Warriors could trip the Suns up with small-ball lineups and challenge Ayton like they did in that Suns loss, Phoenix could simply match them in size. From there, the Suns are more well-rounded and deeper on both sides of the court.
On top of the Warriors being a worse team than the Lakers, they are the far better matchup too.