Lakers-Suns preview, Pt. 3: LeBron James’ ability to finish downhill

May 21, 2021, 6:02 PM
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix ...
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during 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.

After reviewing Devin Booker’s potential impact and looking down low, one player’s status could change the entire series.

The last time we saw him play basketball, LeBron James did not look like LeBron James.

James is one of sports’ greatest athletic marvels. Even at 36 years old, he still moves incredibly well.

But he did not on Wednesday, as his right ankle is still clearly ailing him.

James was fine getting quickly up to speed going north and south, but when he had to move laterally or explode and get vertical, it wasn’t happening.

If James is not that guy for some of this series, an unstoppable bowling ball that is relentless getting to the rim, that will really change things for the Suns.

In a March 2 Lakers loss, James was that guy and shot 16-of-24 from the field. Thirteen of those makes were in the key and 10 were at the rim.

He was able to get downhill.

If he can’t consistently, though, Los Angeles’ offense will inevitably stagnate.

The Lakers turn over their possessions at the third-highest rate in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. 

The offense that ranks 24th by points per 100 possessions is far more peaks and valleys than a consistent flow, and James’ health in the series will dictate quite a bit of that.

On Wednesday against the Warriors, he was mostly in second gear, cruising through the ebbs and flows of Golden State’s defense and often taking his first passing option as soon as it was there. With James’ greatness in mind, this is his version of settling, not getting into the teeth of the defense.

Any great defense like the Warriors’ or Suns’ will take that.

On top of James being who he is, the best player in the world, this matters because of the Suns’ lack of a concrete No. 1 guy to stick on James.

Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson aren’t strong enough and Jae Crowder isn’t quick enough. Torrey Craig is probably the best matchup to defend James, but that’s a tough trade-off with the other side of the floor.

If James, however, is a bit hobbled, the Suns are in a far different position. Now the Suns can throw four different guys at him that can continue to wear him down. If he’s not getting through Bridges and Johnson, those two can battle. No blow-bys on Crowder? He bumps and moves with the best of ’em.

It’s a much different series if the Suns can do that.

Bridges is the favorite to get the assignment. Deandre Ayton and Crowder will be on the Lakers’ two starting bigs, which forces Bridges there.

Bridges has this uncanny ability to spring up on contests while moving laterally and backpedaling to stop pump-fakes and drives.

If James isn’t getting deep enough into Bridges for him to be able to make plays like this, it gives the All-Defense candidate a far better chance at holding his own.

As a defender himself, James will spend time between Bridges and Crowder.

Crowder is the easiest cover, so it’s probably that. On Wednesday, James was being hidden most of the time. There were minutes for Golden State where Andrew Wiggins was the lead option offensively, a matchup only James is capable of taking as the only other wing on the Lakers besides Kyle Kuzma.

James did not, and the Warriors benefitted from it. The Suns could, too.

While Crowder is not much of an offensive option, they can get him into motions to make James do more than just stand in the corner.

And how about using Crowder as a screener?

As for Bridges, he averaged 15.5 points per game and shot 59.3% from the field in his last 15 games of the season.

The Suns will need to get Bridges going offensively with or without James on him, but if that’s where the King is, it’s even more important.

Phoenix head coach Monty Williams has been calling more actions for Bridges in the last couple of weeks, giving him looks in the midrange area where he has shot close to 50% this season.

All of this can be a cumulative effort to wear down a clearly not 100% James by the fifth or sixth game of the series. To be fair, this is James we’re talking about. Most of our time is spent questioning whether he is human or not, so it’s a tall task that borders on feeling impossible.

But if there’s something to James’ ankle, when we’re zooming out on the matchup as a whole, that would be a gigantic win for the Suns and would drastically shift the odds of the series.

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Lakers-Suns preview, Pt. 3: LeBron James’ ability to finish downhill