EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Lakers-Suns Game 6 preview: Do Lakers have 1 more counter shot left?

Jun 2, 2021, 6:38 PM | Updated: Jun 3, 2021, 11:12 am
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts on the bench during the second half in Game Five ...
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts on the bench during the second half in Game Five of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 01, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The second half of Game 4 between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers felt like a turning point in the series, and not just because of Anthony Davis’ absence after injuring his groin.

The Suns for the first time all series were able to play through their identity offensively. They found their flow through an increased pace off misses to quickly move the ball. In the last six quarters, Phoenix has 39 assists and only seven turnovers.

Game 5 was the Suns’ first reaching at least 25 assists, and the 29 they dished out joined 14 made three-pointers as high marks in the series for either team.

Suns head coach Monty Williams and Devin Booker solved the Lakers’ defensive equation thrown at the star shooting guard. They knew there were still chances for him to shoot, just sooner than usual.

They created those windows.

Los Angeles has not had answers for Cam Payne’s drives all series. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 21.1 points off the bench.

We’ll see on Chris Paul’s right shoulder for Game 6, but in the last two games, he at least got his rhythm back in the pick-and-roll game.

All that said, barring a Suns collapse or tremendous defensive effort from the Lakers, it feels like that if the swing comes in Game 6, it’ll be on the other end.

In Game 5, what the Suns did defensively to the Lakers felt beyond a dare. It was an open invitation.

Phoenix continued to load up driving lanes. Help defenders were essentially rolling out the red carpet for LeBron James to kick the ball out. He obliged.

And if the ball keeps rotating, the Suns will do the work. Their “shift defense,” jamming bodies inside and scrambling to recover on kickouts, has proven it’s elite these last two games.

James himself said that he is never going to stop making the right play, which is what the Suns want.

“I play the game the right way no matter the circumstances,” he said after Game 5. “Getting guys open looks when I draw two or three (defenders), if I’m in 1-on-1 coverage and I feel like I’ve got a lane or I got an angle to take it as well but I don’t predetermine anything that I’m gonna do. I’ve never played the game that way. It’s about reading and reacting and living with the results.”

This would be fine on a decent three-point shooting team, but the Lakers built a roster lacking there and it’s coming back to bite them. Through five games they are at a 30.2% mark from deep. When James’ and Marc Gasol’s attempts are taken out, the efficiency drops to 23.9%.

If Davis plays, that will give the Lakers some space, but only so much. Davis would be on that invite list of the 3s party hosted by the Suns defense too. Since coming back from his calf strain in late April, Davis is 11-of-53 (20.8%) at three-point range.

And the key wasn’t full for just James. That was even the case for the likes of Dennis Schroder and Alex Caruso.

Having Davis off the floor to free up Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges as help defenders has evaporated any room to breathe for Los Angeles off the bounce.

Without Davis in Game 5, the Suns switched the majority of ball screens involving James. To counter this, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel used shooters for those screens and had them reemerge for open 3s.

They missed them.

By the mid-second quarter, it was clear the Lakers weren’t running much offense at all. The edge in chemistry and rhythm as a unit offensively isn’t close. Only once in five games have the Lakers reached 20 assists, and it was just 24 in Game 2.

Unless the Lakers get hot, there’s no great solution for them. James isn’t able to go full bore on that right ankle and is settling more for jumpers. His 38 three-point attempts through five games are already the fourth most he’s taken in a playoff series.

The hope for the Lakers is that James and Davis both have enough in the tank to be interior presences offensively, particularly Davis and Andre Drummond on the offensive glass. With how the two stars have looked health-wise in this series, it doesn’t look promising.

If James can get inside, though, we all know he can get to the free throw line. In James’ 29 career playoff games that were either Game 6 or 7, he’s taken 10.1 free throw attempts per game, per Stathead. He’s 20-9 in those games too, because, you know, he’s LeBron.

Vogel’s challenge will be freeing up that room for James (and potentially Davis) to get opportunities inside. He’s been outcoached in this series already and Game 6 will tell us by how much.

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