EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton’s big Game 1 about Suns blowing up Lakers’ gameplan

May 24, 2021, 8:29 AM | Updated: 2:55 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns puts up a shot during the first half of Game One of the Weste...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns puts up a shot during the first half of Game One of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Arena on May 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Lakers doubled Devin Booker from the very first possession Sunday in the Phoenix Suns’ Game 1 win.

It was a clear sign of respect that Lakers coach Frank Vogel was sending multiple bodies as Booker situated himself on the wing, not just by blitzing the Suns guard aggressively in pick-and-roll situations.

But the latter hurt Los Angeles — badly.

As the Lakers switched or hedged their big men onto Booker and Phoenix point guard Chris Paul coming off screens, the rotations behind struggled. Communication about whether to switch or not cropped up. Even when the Lakers were in position and on point, the strategic decision by Vogel’s staff left guards and wings trying to handle center Deandre Ayton.

The 22-year-old center finished with 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting to go with 16 rebounds.

That put him in historical company.

It was a huge game for the 2018 first overall pick after he took time off to rest a sore knee and as he made his first playoff appearance. Game 1 served as a confidence booster for him that the Lakers surely shouldn’t want.

How Ayton got there point to red flags on the Lakers’ end.

“You put a lot of attention on Chris and Book, it allows (Ayton) to be down in the paint, a lot of smalls trying to box him out,” Lakers forward LeBron James said.

Literally all of his buckets — and even the single miss — came off actions where Los Angeles too aggressively attacked Booker and Paul.

Some of that was about offensive rebounding, which was related to smaller players getting switched onto Ayton.

Missed foul call or not, this did not end well for the Lakers.

Other times, it was simply about Ayton rolling hard to the rim as his primary defender, Andre Drummond, challenged Booker or Paul flying off elbow screens.

That left guards like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to try contesting rim attempts against a 7-footer.

By the end of the first half, Los Angeles oddly began dropping Drummond on pick-and-roll actions instead of pushing him up to the three-point line to harass Booker — even when Ayton was replaced by backup center Dario Saric.

The Suns were effectively in the Lakers’ heads.

And that’s where Booker began cooking toward 34 points, even if the Lakers had sought out to create a gameplan all about stopping him.

“At the point of attack, I think Book was exceptional at the pick-and-roll today, coming full-steam against our bigs, against our smalls in the mid-range,” James said. “At the end of the day, we gave up 99 points. I thought we did a heck of a job trying to contain everyone except Ayton.”

That’s where the Lakers have questions to answer.

Vogel began his press conference after the loss with a curious statement when he was asked if he thought his team lacked initiative.

“I thought our guys played with great intensity,” the head coach said. “I think we got taken out of a lot of things we wanted to do offensively with Phoenix having a week to prepare for us. Credit to them for doing a great job with that.

“We just got to execute a little bit better on the offensive side of the ball, we got to rebound a little bit better defensively and we got to make shots. We missed nine layups, 11 free throws and didn’t have a great shooting night at the three-point line.”

Here’s how to translate that coach-speak: Adjustments are coming.

Booker shouldn’t score an efficient 34 (even in 45 minutes) if the scheme was set to stop him. Ayton shouldn’t have 21 points with one miss as a result either.

Suns head coach Monty Williams shortened his rotation drastically, daring Vogel to play his two banged up stars 40-plus. He did not.

Los Angeles surely enters Game 2 with a better sense — and more scouting time — of how Phoenix wants to attack things. It’s just a matter if the Lakers can execute their scheme better than they did Sunday, or if the Suns can keep blowing up their gameplans.

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