EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Lakers-Suns Game 4 preview: Grinding to speed up the game

May 28, 2021, 2:50 PM | Updated: 5:56 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) du...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the first half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

A 109-95 loss for the Phoenix Suns on Thursday that put them down 2-1 in the series to the Los Angeles Lakers felt like a tipping point.

The Lakers looked the best they have in weeks and the Suns did not respond well to it.

What Game 4 will likely come down to more than anything is if the Suns can really impose their will on the game. Because some of the more basic adjustments they can make come down to working harder than they ever have this season.

LeBron and AD are in the paint. Now what?

(Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

I’m not sure the Suns can answer this question, and every team is going to struggle with it.

James got back to his downhill self while all of Davis’ 10 field goals in the paint were assisted or via offensive rebounds. Davis was used as a diver with lots of success.

Most of it pointed back to responsibilities for Deandre Ayton. That is completely absurd, because asking for Ayton to do even more when he has been the Suns’ most consistent, level-headed and flat-out best player in this series, is just … yeah. But he’s the only rim protector on the team, so he’s gotta be there when James and Davis are.

What the Suns can do is tighten a few of those possessions up. In the third quarter of Game 1 after James made his intent clear, Ayton adjusted and starting getting to his spot of cutting James off.

But in an example of how precise the little things are in the postseason against great teams, Jae Crowder was just a hair away from getting a hand on James’ dump-offs.

And one more:

Looking at something that needs to happen more that we briefly saw on Thursday, Chris Paul started getting in that pocket of space right as the ball got in the key.

The Suns might be the best team in the league at leaving someone open to help and then scrambling back in time to recover before the shape of the defense is compromised.

 

Monty Williams on Friday said the film showed too much room for the Lakers and that the Suns need to get back to clogging that up.

“We call it our shift defense, where we take away the paint,” he said. “Like most good defensive teams, try to close out on shooters once the ball is passed … For sure keeping LeBron and AD from being so comfortable in our paint … That was a huge emphasis for our staff today and we’re really going to dive into it tomorrow with our players.”

Off those types of possessions, the Suns can flow much better into their offense too with some decent tempo.

Their defense is going to need to hit that gear with the way James and Davis looked on Sunday. And it’s going to require a whole lot of work and discipline.

Going small

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Suns need to have an alternative plan in place if Paul’s shoulder is still acting up. That did not appear to be the case in Game 3. Either that or it went really wrong.

Paul’s minutes with the reserves have been tremendous all season, but now those are affected too. In the time Ayton is resting, something else might need to be tried.

They don’t have much else to do with the big rotation because Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky can’t protect the rim or finish at it.

Despite how even more overwhelming the Lakers’ size advantage would be if the Suns go small, Phoenix does not really have another choice if it wants to switch things up. And the Suns should, because the offense on Thursday scored 35 points in 24 minutes.

Playing three guards, getting Jevon Carter, E’Twaun Moore or Langston Galloway involved and gang-rebounding out of their minds with either Torrey Craig or Crowder at the 5 is the central idea. Space out the floor for Cam Payne drives, and hopefully Devin Booker, who needs more wiggle room.

In Game 3, with the Lakers knowing they could give Paul extra room to shoot and place more of an emphasis on Booker, he had nowhere to go most of the time with three guys keyed in on him.

Williams talked to Booker on Friday about “just letting it go” and being more aggressive to get his first shot as opposed to trying to break down the Lakers’ defense with quick passes and movement.

That should be easier with more guards out there, especially given that the wing trio of Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson is shooting a combined 21-of-67 (31.3%) in the series.

It is not ideal to attempt going small against the team with Andre Drummond on it, one of the NBA’s best rebounders in the last decade, and a bigger team in general. In a way, though, Williams would be challenging his squad to try and win this way, where it’s on them from an effort and energy perspective. Maybe that’s what the team needs. But no one knows that better than Williams, so what he chooses to do will be telling of what the team is capable of in the middle of a heated playoff series.

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