Lakers-Suns preview, Pt. 1: Devin Booker vs. NBA’s No. 1 defense

May 20, 2021, 3:18 PM | Updated: 9:23 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns lays up a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns lays up a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of the NBA preseason game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 18, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

To get you ready for the Phoenix Suns’ first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kellan Olson of Empire of the Suns is rolling through some of his biggest keys to the series.

First up is the face of the franchise.

Years of playing on terrible teams in irrelevant games got Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker ready for his first playoff series.

Booker told me in March 2019 that it was by the end of his second season when he thought he had seen every defense teams could throw at him. He has spent the next few advancing his feel for those defenses, getting better and better at reading them and taking advantage of the opportunities they present.

Even alongside Chris Paul, he’s still seeing those tactics that look to limit his scoring at the expense of his teammates being left open.

The Lakers have keyed in on Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton as much as possible in all three regular season matchups. With Booker’s athleticism and size edge over Paul, he is the guy most likely to be able to punish it as much as possible.

The Suns will not make this much of a series if Booker’s growing expertise doesn’t pop.

The good news for Suns fans is that it already has this season.

Prior to Booker’s ejection in a March 2 win over the Lakers, he shot 7-of-12 from the field with 17 points and six assists in 24 minutes.

His first four assists were for three-pointers. The Lakers were making sure their low man tagged on the space for Ayton’s rolls, and Booker was all over it.

End-of-clock situation at the end of the half? He’s still on it.

In that first example, it’s a hard trap from Los Angeles center Montrezl Harrell, refusing to let Booker turn the corner. Booker can roll through adjustments, like reacting to Harrell only initially showing before retreating back to Ayton.

That’s food for the Suns.

An extension of this is Booker’s teammates capitalizing on what’s been created. His supporting cast did not do that in the May 9 loss.

Booker himself was 1-of-5 in the first quarter, unable to find a rhythm in his own game. The Lakers are excellent at forcing that, and it’s only going to be easier for them to do with LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the help defenders covering up certain alleys.

They proved it on Wednesday, doubling Stephen Curry 16 times and forcing five turnovers out of it, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The Suns are third in halfcourt offense and the Lakers are fourth in halfcourt defense, per Cleaning the Glass. Something will give there.

But where Booker can find that for himself when things aren’t going right is the free-throw line.

Through less of the ball for Booker, his free throw attempts per game dropped to 5.9 this year after being over seven each of the last two seasons.

As a team, the Suns finished 29th in free throw rate, one of their biggest weaknesses as a team.

Again, though, Booker has done this before this year against Los Angeles. On a 5-of-14 shooting night in a May 9 loss, Booker was 11-of-13 at the foul stripe.

Booker is more than adept at initiating contact and has a bag of tricks to do so. He will need to reach into it at points in this series, whether it’s after a few possessions or a few quarters. He will be learning on the fly how to do that in playoff basketball, where the whistle is less forgiving.

For his first postseason, all of this is a lot to ask out of Booker, but his grade in execution against the league’s best defense will play a large factor in how the series goes.

C-? The Suns are done. B+? They’ve got a real shot. A? Now we’re talking.

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