EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Lakers-Suns Game 5 preview: What changes if Anthony Davis is out

May 31, 2021, 3:03 PM
Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix S...
Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in the first half of game four of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoff basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 30, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
(Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

A series full of what we believe to be a turning point had its latest on Sunday, as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis is unlikely to play due to a left groin strain, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

This changes a whole lot for the Phoenix Suns, and they quickly turn into the favorites in the series if Davis misses one or more games.

Game 4 showed a bit of why:

Bodies on bodies inside

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

It’s hard to understate the importance of Davis. The Lakers’ offense loses all of its spice while defensively there is no secondary interior presence that also clogs up driving and passing lanes.

Let’s start on offense, where we will see a whole lot of blandness.

Whether the Lakers put Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris or someone else at the 4, the biggest swing is that the Suns would be able to put Jae Crowder on LeBron James and Mikal Bridges on Dennis Schroder, what Suns head coach Monty Williams did in the second half of Game 4.

This does a couple of different things. Firstly, a Schroder-James ball screen action is now a simple switch.

Second of all, it would allow Bridges to roam more and pack the paint with Ayton, who wouldn’t have to guard Davis.

At the start of the third quarter, James ran four straight possessions with Andre Drummond as the screener.

Ths Suns loaded up the key and had help off shooters far enough away to where they were welcoming James to kick the ball out.

Ayton and Bridges’ positioning in the last example is notable.

The Suns’ “shift defense” as Williams calls it, aka their ability to scramble and recover back to shooters, is awesome. They don’t mind putting that extra work in and have a great feel for snapping the defense back into place. On the weak side in that second clip, Chris Paul is covering two shooters at once, and Phoenix is perfectly OK with that.

Ayton was there in the paint to meet James, and again, note Bridges’ presence under the basket.

After those didn’t go well, James let Kuzma go to work for two trips down, the most obvious guy the Lakers need to step up to add some scoring punch if Davis doesn’t play.

Kuzma averaged 16.1 points per game as a rookie and bumped that to 18.7 in Year 2, but Davis’ arrival and contending basketball saw his role greatly diminish the last two seasons. With that, he’s become more of an energy guy known for rebounding and defense over buckets. And, unfortunately for Los Angeles, he has not been able to toggle between the two.

Over the 16 games both Davis and James missed due to injury from late March to late April, Kuzma shot 41.0% from the field, 30.2% at three-point range and had 15.7 points a night in 14 outings.

In this series over four games, Kuzma has 21 points on 29 shots (7-for-29, 24.1%).

The Suns will be fine with him, Morris, Alex Caruso, Wes Matthews and others beating them.

Out of a timeout in the mid-third quarter, Frank Vogel wanted a baseline pick-and-roll between James and Drummond. Schroder cut through the middle to the corner, but Bridges just stayed home.

Nothing was there:

The return of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be huge, as even with his struggles in this series, he has been the team’s only good three-point shooter on volume at 41.0% on 4.4 a game. Lineups featuring him, Caruso (40.1%) and Gasol (41.0%) would at least give James the threat of shooting.

Schroder would need to get back to his form from Games 2 and 3, which he was the best guard in. He shot 3-of-13 in Game 4, thanks in part to a great defensive effort out of Devin Booker.

And if Davis is out, Bridges can also spend time on Schroder.

The Lakers, a bad shooting team, are going to need to start hitting 3s to have a chance offensively. It’s that or an all-time LeBron game, which we tend to see at this point of a playoff series from him. Either way, even if James dominates this game offensively, the Suns will still be in it anyway with the lack of help he has.

Paint to great

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

And that is why the offensive execution for Phoenix will be the ultimate difference-maker on Tuesday.

At halftime in Game 4, the Suns had 14 assists and 14 fastbreak points. It felt like there was no way they would lose if that part of their game continued. The defense and effort was there, which helps Phoenix because of how much it relies on good offense from good defense.

And the best thing the Suns were doing was “paint to great,” Williams’ way of labeling the drive-and-kick game.

Phoenix, in general, was getting inside off the dribble better than it had all series.

Yes, Booker could have shot this, but this is what that mentality is all about.

Williams has created an identity for the team on the court in his two years with the Suns, and said as much after the game on Sunday by saying “that’s who we are.”

“We try to defend and we try to play with a great deal of pace and play in 0.5,” he said. “When we can get stops and get down the floor and the ball is just moving around the rim, don’t know if it favors us, but that’s how we like to play.”

A lot of this in the first round goes back to Ayton. Watch him here:

And here (with that Booker defense on Schroder again too):

Suns players were just getting to the rim too, where Davis’ presence was noticeably missing.

Crowder had three field goals off drives, all of them difficult finishes. He’s been sneaky good at getting to the basket when his team needs it, even though the numbers show you a guy who relies almost entirely on 3s for offense.

Cameron Payne was once again terrific, scoring eight points in his first shift of the second half.

To go back to something Booker said on Sunday, in response to a question on not forcing it through his struggles and still trying to set up his teammates, Booker said he knows he’s got a great team and he trusts them.

That traces to guys like Crowder and Payne giving the Suns enough offense on Sunday, even with Chris Paul still not a consistent offensive threat and Booker receiving enormous amounts of attention from the Lakers defense. They can win the series this way and they’ll have to keep it up on Tuesday.

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