PHOENIX SUNS

Roundtable: How do the Suns beat the Lakers? Here are the keys

May 21, 2021, 12:37 PM | Updated: 4:36 pm
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, shoots as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends ...

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, shoots as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Not only are the Phoenix Suns back in the playoffs after a 11-long drought, they face none other than the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.

While we can go on and on about what to watch in the series, the Arizona Sports hosts and editors provided their No. 1 key for the Suns to knock off their nemesis in 2021:

What is the No. 1 key for the Suns to defeat the Lakers in the first round?

Doug Franz, co-host of Doug & Wolf: Discussing Ayton’s focus is no different than complaining about a teenager who hasn’t started their paper one week before it’s due. No one knows whether or not he’s going to be engaged so don’t count on it and be thrilled if the game falls on the one full moon when he’s intensely focused.

The much bigger issue has been the darlings of the team. As America has saluted the play of Paul, Booker and Bridges, America hasn’t paid attention to the red capes they’re wearing on defense. In the month of April, it’s been hard to tell if there are more opposing guards in the lane against the Suns or idiots in the left lane on the Interstate 10. It’s easy to blame Ayton but that would be a mistake. He’s busy trying to bail out the abhorrent Phoenix backcourt defense.

If he comes to help, it’s a lob or an offensive rebound. If he doesn’t, it’s a lay-up or a paint-touch three. That’s not on him! Paul can get his 14 assists and Booker can have his 30 points with just one made three, but if the Suns’ backcourt plays its April-style, it’s time for the annual June question, “Will Nick Ahmed bat over .237 this year?”

Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: It’s so hard to pick one key so I’m going to cheat and pick one on each end of the floor. On the offensive end the Suns will have to figure out a way for Devin Booker to impact these games when the Lakers are throwing the kitchen sink at him defensively. He knows it’s coming; what is he going to do about it? On the other end it’s all about Deandre Ayton and how he can defend Anthony Davis. There are no easy answers with this one but the options really shrink if Ayton is ineffective, disengaged or out due to foul trouble.

Ron Wolfley, co-host of Doug & Wolf: The Suns must be better on the defensive end of the floor than the Lakers. That is no easy task.

The Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They proved that again when they shut down the Warriors in the second half of the play-in game on Wednesday night. They choked out Steve Kerr’s boys, upped the intensity ante and allowed fewer points per quarter as the game unfolded. Twenty-eight points in the first quarter turned into 27 in the second, 24 in the third and a suffocating 21 in the 4th quarter.

How do you slay the dragon? Be better than the dragon.

The Suns have made defense part of their culture, the DNA of who they are and how they won games in a magical season. But as is the case so much of the time, familiarity breeds contempt and the Suns’ defensive identity wavered down the stretch as the wins piled up. They need to double down their commitment on the defensive end of the floor and dance with the one who brought ’em.

The Suns need to beat the Lakers at their own game and be the counter to their culture. Planet Orange lost to the Lakers the last time they were in the playoffs but if the Suns are to right that wrong over a decade ago, the dark side, Planet Purple, should determine the outcome of this series.

Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: The No. 1 key for the Suns against the Lakers is increasing the defensive intensity.

That very thing was a hallmark for the Suns earlier in the season, part of their identity. But it waned in the closing weeks (at least in terms of consistency).

We all know LeBron and AD are going to get theirs, they’re simply too good not to. It is imperative that the Suns make it as difficult as possible for both All-Stars to find their grooves all while limiting the damage done by the Lakers’ seemingly endless collection of peripheral players.

It’s a big ask, but if the Suns don’t match LA’s intensity on the defensive end, a series win will be close to impossible.

John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: Deandre Ayton. The Lakers will trap Booker and force the ball out of his hands as much as possible. In doing that they will have whoever is guarding DA come out and help Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the trap. That will mean Ayton is open and that is exactly what the Lakers want. They want Ayton to have to make decisions and don’t believe he can play the way a Draymond Green does in moving the ball quickly and finding the open shooters.

When Ayton catches the ball the Lakers will rotate coverage and he will only have a split second to make decisions that will determine who wins and loses these games. The Lakers will not allow Ayton to get lob baskets and dunks so he will have to shoot over defenders to contribute offensively. And defensively, with Saric and Kaminsky too slow to guard Anthony Davis, and Crowder and Craig not big enough, DA will have to help on the defense of a player who burned the Suns for 42 points the last time they saw him.

Luke Lapinski, host of The Rundown: There are so many different ways to look at this series, and that’s what makes it so compelling. The Lakers have the clear advantage in playoff experience and they have LeBron on their side, but I certainly like the Suns’ guards better and Monty Williams honestly might be the perfect coach for this team right now. That matters in the playoffs. A lot.

It could go either way, which is why I’m baffled when I see people picking a sweep — in either direction. But the one thing the Suns have to do above all else if they want to win this thing is find some sort of answer for Anthony Davis. He missed two of the three regular season meetings between Phoenix and LA, but promptly put up 42 and 12 in the game he played. He’s potentially the most dangerous big man in the world, and this is the one matchup Phoenix could’ve gotten in the first round that suddenly puts even more pressure on Deandre Ayton.

It’s not fair or realistic to say Ayton’s entirely responsible for what Davis does, but the Suns don’t have a ton of depth inside and he’s obviously the main guy they can throw at AD. So he’s going to have to step up.

In fairness to Ayton, that’s a lot to ask of a guy in his first playoff series ever, and he’s already one of the most polarizing Suns of all time. But Phoenix did use the No. 1 overall pick on him for a scenario like this and, if he comes up big over the next two weeks, we could be talking about one of the most memorable wins in franchise history.

On top of that, Game 1 is more important for Phoenix than it is for LA. The Lakers looked relatively beat up and out of sync Wednesday and the Suns need to jump all over that. There’s opportunity here and the last thing you want is to be chasing a series against the defending champs.

Kellan Olson, editor and reporter for ArizonaSports.com, co-host of the Empire of the Suns podcast: Devin Booker has earned the right for this to be presumed and expected, but I’m still going to say his ability to dissect the Lakers’ top-rated defense.

There aren’t many places the Suns can go offensively if Booker gets thrown off by the various looks Los Angeles will throw his way. He has proven over the past couple of seasons that he is capable of doing this, but the playoffs against a Lakers team this experienced is a different task.

I expect him to be on-point for the Suns, but if for whatever reason he runs into issues, Phoenix won’t have much of a chance.

Kevin Zimmerman, editor for ArizonaSports.com, co-host of the Empire of the Suns podcast: LeBron James will get his. Anthony Davis will get his. The Suns aren’t alone in that duo being a bad matchup against them, and I suspect that while Deandre Ayton will be the swing factor in how Phoenix does in this series, he’s not going to be the only one to credit or blame.

The Lakers bring the No. 1 defense into the series and have a history against the Suns — and more recently against the Warriors — of flipping the switch to make stars like Devin Booker and Stephen Curry look bad. They will blitz Booker and Chris Paul at a moment’s notice, and then it’s on to the Suns star guards to protect the ball, get it out of their hands and let their role players do some damage.

Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Cam Payne, Torrey Craig and Dario Saric are the guys who can separate the series in the Suns’ favor.

Tyler Drake, editor for ArizonaSports.com: For me, it’s Mikal Bridges letting his regular season play pour over into the postseason. After having a “vulnerable conversation” with Monty Williams last year, Bridges has turned a corner this season, setting career highs in just about every statistical category. He’s shooting an impressive 42.5% from deep and 54.3% overall, while averaging 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He’s second to only Devin Booker (33.9) in minutes per outing (32.6).

Deandre Ayton is a hot topic ahead of the team’s first-round matchup with Los Angeles, there’s no doubt about that. But harnessing Bridges’ consistency and getting him involved early can provide the Suns with another threat on both sides of the ball. Make sure he’s utilized and let him be the spark plug he has been for this team all season, especially against a tough Lakers defense.

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Roundtable: How do the Suns beat the Lakers? Here are the keys