EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Lakers-Suns preview, Pt. 2: How much will LA’s size advantage matter?

May 21, 2021, 8:10 AM | Updated: 4:36 pm

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) grabs a rebound next to Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ay...

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)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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.

After reviewing Devin Booker’s potential impact, it’s time to look down low.

We will learn together the answer to that question in the headline over the first game or two, because right now, it’s hard to be sure.

The Lakers saw tremendous success going small against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, as Anthony Davis at the 5 has always been the prominent feature of their best lineups. They’ll still likely start Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell or Marc Gasol against the Suns and will probably have the rotation include another player.

Their presence on the court changes how the Suns can defend Davis.

Deandre Ayton is the only player close to a good option on Davis. He has all the athletic and physical traits to match him. Experience is his only weakness.

Jae Crowder has that experience and will get physical with Davis to make him work, but that’s the extent of it. Davis is too big.

So, if Drummond or another center starts, does Suns head coach Monty Williams put Crowder on that center to get Ayton on Davis?

If so, can they gang rebound together enough? If not, how do the Suns perform defending Davis as a team, which is what Crowder’s assignment would require?

On the latter, the Suns didn’t tip their hand for the last meeting, starting Torrey Craig on Davis and putting in a suboptimal effort.

There’s a weird counterbalance to all this because, in a way, Phoenix wants one of those centers out there. As we saw Wednesday, the Warriors had a good ol’ time putting Drummond in ball screen actions. All three of the centers are negatives there, even the former Defensive Player of the Year Gasol at the age of 36.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker can pick those guys apart.

When the Lakers do go small, Ayton, the X-factor of the entire series, is going to swing a lot with the job he does on Davis.

Davis can dominate this series and have it done in five games, easy. Draymond Green’s performance on Davis this Wednesday was one-of-one, but Ayton has shown an ability over his career (and this season) to rise to the challenge defensively on some of the NBA’s premier players.

Davis and Ayton have hardly matched up the last two years. In that lone outing Davis got against the Suns this year, Ayton briefly guarded him in the second half, and The Brow showed why he’s such a difficult cover.

Ayton must avoid foul trouble. While he’s an inconsistent player, we have seen games this year where you could feel the Suns’ chances at a win slipping every extra second Ayton was on the bench.

If Williams is forced to keep him there, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric will get shredded. Both stand no chance on Davis, covering pick-and-rolls, protecting the rim and combating the Lakers’ centers on the glass. Kaminsky has improved his feel for defending ball screens and Saric has always been a smart overall defender, but both are limited by their athleticism.

The Suns would also have no interior presence offensively or defensively. They are dead last in the percentage of their shots at the rim, and on the other end, the Lakers are sixth while also being seventh in their efficiency there, per Cleaning the Glass.

It is not just on the Suns’ bigs to accomplish this, either. When Phoenix’s defense has not performed up to its high standards, it often starts with allowing too much dribble penetration.

Lakers like Dennis Schroder, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kyle Kuzma adding freebies by blowing by Suns perimeter defenders would really sting.

But all these paths do lead back to Ayton.

He needs to be there to clean up those mistakes and offer some resistance in the key. He needs to not lose focus on Davis, limiting him where he can without fouling or leaving him wide open on threes. He needs to be what Booker and Paul want as a pick-and-roll partner, setting the right type of screens and diving hard every single time.

We have seen that Ayton before. It is not often one that scores 25 points and grabs 15 rebounds. And that is more than fine.

No winning formula exists for the Suns if Ayton is disappearing for stretches of the game. The defending champs in a playoff setting will not offer that lenience.

And to wrap by going back on those needs, this does not need to be breakout series for him. Ayton just needs to do enough. We’ll see if he can.

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Lakers-Suns preview, Pt. 2: How much will LA’s size advantage matter?