EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Roving LeBron, Lakers’ lane-clogging put onus on Suns’ shooters in Game 3

May 26, 2021, 10:16 AM | Updated: May 27, 2021, 9:20 am

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, middle, gets off a shot over Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron Jam...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, middle, gets off a shot over Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and Lakers center Marc Gasol (14) during the first half of Game 2 of their NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Los Angeles Lakers still have their personnel flaws after tying up the first-round series with the Phoenix Suns, 1-1.

Those are not going away.

Their defense that led the league in the regular season looked more energetic in a 109-102 win Tuesday at Phoenix Suns Arena, but it also threw some wrinkles at the home team. As it’s been, Los Angeles’ success is less about its personnel attributes and more about the scheme setting up opponents to make mistakes.

A game after allowing Deandre Ayton to gouge them on the interior, the Lakers used that success to set up Suns mistakes early on, something that head coach Monty Williams said put them in a hole they couldn’t quite recover from.

Phoenix committed seven of its 13 turnovers in a rhythm-lacking first quarter as head coach Frank Vogel’s team rotated through multiple defensive coverages early on to keep the Suns guessing.

The Lakers switched, hedged and recovered, or dropped on pick-and-roll coverages — all within the first few minutes of the game and depending on who and what Phoenix was attacking with.

Let’s look at Devin Booker’s four turnovers, three of which came in the first quarter. You can click the link to view all the videos, but the important parts are mostly about the floor spacing at the time of the turnover:

Turnover No. 1

Ayton sets a screen for Booker atop the arc. Lakers center Andre Drummond drops to meet Booker at the foul stripe, then recovers back to Ayton after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope recovers to get in front of Booker. Though Ayton is in position to catch in the lane and score over Drummond, LeBron James follows Mikal Bridges moving into the space that Booker’s drive vacated — but James cheats off Bridges to steal a Booker pass.

Turnover No. 2

Booker, now guarded by Kyle Kuzma, comes off a pin-down screen from Ayton. Drummond, closer to the hoop this time, is still dropping.

In this situation, with no room to recover on Booker, Kuzma instead retreats to the rolling Ayton, knowing it’s Drummond’s job to stay in front of the ball-handler. Booker’s bounce pass is intercepted by Kuzma.

But more importantly, note the attention Booker drew from players not involved in the primary action. James has again sunk into the paint with Bridges drifting to the corner. Los Angeles point guard Dennis Schroder digs down on Booker after he dropped off Paul atop the key.

Turnover No. 3

For the third turnover, Booker is in transition and has an easy time putting Caldwell-Pope in jail. Now Marc Gasol is at center, and he leaves Dario Saric and — in a similar position as Drummond from the first Booker turnover — sets up shop at the foul stripe.

Again, note that James leaves Bridges to clog the paint, Kuzma is drifting off Cam Payne and Caldwell-Pope — Booker’s guy — is playing the passing lane. Another bounce pass is picked off.

Turnover No. 4

Booker eventually resets.

The Lakers are giving him mid-range looks, and he gets into scoring mode. He doesn’t commit another turnover until late in the fourth quarter.

Here, he gets by Caldwell-Pope and draws lots of attention. Anthony Davis is a little late rotating, but for the last time, watch James completely disregard Jae Crowder, who is going from wing to top-of-the-arc — just like Bridges on Booker’s first turnover and Schroder in example No. 2.

Of course, Booker gets different treatment because he remains the focal point of the Suns’ offense, especially with Paul a non-factor as a play-maker or floor spacer.

The Lakers, as clunky as some of their rotation players are as defenders, excel because they execute directions and know the opponents well.

Even Cam Payne suffered from some of the same defensive priorities imparted by the Lakers.

Below, you can see Kuzma is the only player worried about his opponent, Cam Johnson, shooting as Payne comes off a screen. Four players on the strong side converge on Payne and swallow up a lob.

It’s not helpful that an injured Paul is sitting wide open in the corner. No wonder Williams opted for the shooting-capable Payne over Paul down the stretch.

The Suns need shooters on the court. They need those shooters to show up and they need their key players to make the right reads.

Phoenix did a much better job spacing the court in the second half, and backscreens from secondary actions freed Ayton up for another wildly efficient night (11-of-13 shooting).

Here, Booker has three capable shooters open by the looks of it. He makes the easy read as the Lakers don’t care about that spacing.

That’s a decent look against the No. 1 defense in the NBA.

They need more of that — and it’s on everyone.

Cam Johnson hit a duo of threes to keep the Suns afloat in Game 2, and Payne’s play unlocked a lot more for the Suns’ offense. But their starting forward duo of Bridges and Crowder have hit 31% of their shots. Through two games, Phoenix has shot that exact percentage as a team from three-point range.

Saric, as poor of a matchup as he is on defense, has not gotten open or spaced the court as he did in his best moments this year.

Until a few of those things flip more in the Suns’ favor, the Lakers will keep clogging passing lanes, cheating as the world’s best basketball mind leaves shooters to play as a roving safety.

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