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The Lakers’ 2 biggest problems all season are costing them vs. Suns

lebron james kyle kuzma dennis schroder alex caruso

The Los Angeles Lakers’ two biggest issues all season are rearing their ugly heads at the worst possible time. Fittingly, it may cause their repeat quest to end prematurely in Game 6 vs. the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center.

On Tuesday, the Lakers played the most pivotal game of LeBron James’ Lakers career without Anthony Davis, who suffered a Grade-1 groin strain in Game 4. It did not go well. Once the Phoenix Suns hit back after an energized Lakers start with an 11-0 run of their own, Los Angeles looked discouraged and deflated — a state that lasted for the final 3.5 quarters.

To make matters worse, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who missed Game 4, re-aggravated his knee contusion, and the Lakers fell 115-85 — their largest margin of defeat in 2020-21.

“This might be the worst game I’ve seen in Laker history,” James Worthy said on the Spectrum postgame show.

Without Davis, the Lakers knew they had only two paths to victory in Game 5, assuming their opponent showed up in front of their raucous and maskless Phoenix Suns Arena (they did): Get a vintage masterpiece from LeBron James, and support and space the floor for him by making and taking three-pointers.

Neither happened.

“They pretty much just kicked our ass,” LeBron said. “There’s nothing else to say.”

LeBron, on a ginger ankle, was unable to muster two-way dominance of the past and single-handedly carry his squad on his massive shoulders. Even more improbably, the Lakers were colder — and not in the Ben McLemore sense — from beyond the arc (3-of-15) pre-garbage time (which I’m classifying as the entire second half) than they had been through the first four games of the series (29%).

“I feel like we started the game off a little hesitant,” Markieff Morris said after Game 5. “We needed everybody to be aggressive without AD in the game. I feel like we were really passive early on.”

It’s unnatural to see a defending champion struggle in the first round, and it’s wholly unprecedented to #witness LeBron James in this position.

It should feel dark and weird — as this whole 2020-21 NBA season has.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Shooting and health have been the Lakers’ glaring Achilles heels since February, and understandably so. Coming off a quick offseason with a (largely) veteran roster, the Lakers haven’t fielded a truly healthy team since Valentine’s Day, and have clearly succumbed to the rigorous calendar and COVID-19 protocols.

Why should that change in the playoffs, the most grueling and demanding time of the year?

This applies to James as much as Davis, whose status for Game 6 is murky. A near-100% LeBron is still the best player on Earth (until he’s dethroned), but that isn’t the same as June ’21 Bron, as his 22.8 points per game since returning from his high ankle sprain indicates. The Athletic’s Seth Partnow calculated that James’s scoring usage vs. the Suns is his second-lowest in a playoff series since his regrettable 2011 NBA Finals. It may not be Father Time calling, but the present is taking its toll.

Furthermore, the shortcomings of the Lakers’ supposed third-best player and scorer, Dennis Schröder, have been deeply detrimental against Phoenix. We still don’t know why he hit the health and safety protocols, but, by his and Frank Vogel’s own admission, he hasn’t been himself since. After strong Games 2 and 3 (22.0 PPG), Schröder’s hesitancy and inefficiency have been emblematic of the Lakers’ team-wide issues. He’s scored eight points and on 3-of-22 shooting over the past two games, with just four assists.

Los Angeles hasn’t been an above-average shooting team in two years, aside from timely shooting in the bubble that helped propel their championship run, and the first month of this season, when they were at their freshest. The Lakers made an unsustainable 38.4% percentage of their threes through January, then plummeted to the mean.

Overall, they shot 35.6% pre-hiatus in 2019-20 and 34.2% post-February this season.

Against Phoenix, they’ve been even worse (31.8%), even though the Suns’ defensive game-plan is to allow the Lakers to take open threes. L.A. has made just 26.2% of their open threes this series, per NBA.com.

All season long, including this series, the Lakers continue to display a damaging proclivity for foregoing open looks — sometimes out of unselfish over-passing, sometimes out of pure hesitancy. This was no better exemplified than by James’ supportive chewing out of KCP, the team’s leading 3-point shooter this season, for his reluctance to let it fly.

“Guys can’t shy away from the moment,” Anthony Davis said. “We just gotta be able to make shots…and shoot the ball with confidence…Seems like we’re hesitating a little bit.”

Schroder (6-20), KCP (1-13), Alex Caruso (5-17), Wesley Matthews (5-19), and Kyle Kuzma (4-21) are bricking when they are shooting. Overall, Los Angeles is shooting 41.3% from the field and 30.2% from deep vs. the Suns.

“We’re literally not making shots,” LeBron said post-Game 5. “We’re just not making shots and it’s my job to get guys open looks and find guys and get guys in rhythm.”

Los Angeles is capable of putting together hot shooting nights. (For the record, I expect them to shoot better and for LeBron to be great in Game 6.) But, as with their unreliable health, to assume it seven months into the season is simply unwise.

These problems snowball. When the Lakers can’t hit threes at a respectable rate, they can’t space the floor for LeBron and, when healthy, AD. Frank Vogel’s system seeks to generate shots via paint attacks and interior might, and the Lakers offense is at its best when its free-flowing and their stable of high-IQ cutters can slice through the lane. That requires the lane to be clear.

“We’re struggling to shoot the ball,” Vogel said. “Our shooters gotta figure it out.”

Phoenix, smartly, has clogged the paint and forced the Lakers ensemble to hit perimeter shots. Despite being open, the Lakers “shooters” have been shook.

“Definitely a problem in that game,” Vogel said Wednesday, about the Lakers’ shot hesitancy in Game 5. “We’re getting good situations offensively. We have to take advantage of those, in every way. We have to take advantage of the situation we’re creating.”

Easier said than done. Down 3-2, they don’t have a choice.

“It’s literally win or go home at that point,” James said about his prolific track record in elimination bouts. “So, you shoot all the bullets you got and throw the gun too.”