Los Angeles Lakers point guard Dennis Schröder has not looked the same since returning from spending 10 days in the league's health and safety protocols. Conversely, Alex Caruso has been superb, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remains the most underrated player on the team.
In Los Angeles' first-round series against the Point God, Chris Paul, and the Phoenix Suns — which will tip-off on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT — how Frank Vogel uses his top three guards will go a long way to determining the Lakers' success.
We know the 7-seeded Lakers (a heavy favorite) match-up favorably with the Suns' front-court. Phoenix is shallow after DeAndre Ayton, who works hard but is a long way from 2009 Dwight Howard. Behind Ayton, Phoenix will turn to (gulp) Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky to contain L.A.'s bigs.
As Davis showed in his 42-point, two-way masterpiece earlier this month, that combination equals barbecue chicken. Add LeBron James into that mix (and sprinkle in some Andre Drummond, if you'd like), and Los Angeles should feast inside. (Of course, all of this is assuming James' ankle holds up — not a guarantee.)
However, the Suns' lone potential advantage comes on the perimeter. For one: they're one of the best shooting teams in the NBA, from basically any spot.
“They’re not good; they’re great,” LeBron said on Friday. “They’re the number one mid-range team in the league because CP and Booker are the number one and number two mid-range players in our league. So, we understand that. The playoffs is all about chess moves, and it’s gonna be a chess match back and forth and see who makes the best moves.”
At 6'6, Devin Booker presents the trickiest matchup for the Lakers. Caldwell-Pope — with some help from Caruso, Wesley Matthews (and possibly Kyle Kuzma and LeBron) — will be tasked with checking Book, who averaged 21.3 PPG on 48% shooting against L.A. in three matchups this season.
The Lakers talked at length on Friday about the Suns' elite sniping from all over the court, and the importance of limiting their open looks and knocking down shots of their own. A shining performance from KCP, as both the Lakers best three-point shooter (41%) and wing option vs. Booker, may be able to swing the series on his own.
Chris Paul, an MVP candidate, is perhaps better than anybody in the league besides James at single-handedly dictating the tempo of a game. The Suns' offensive attack — they finished fifth in offensive rating, third in effective field goal percentage, and seventh in points per game — is predicated on methodically controlling the pace and limiting turnovers, much of which is dependent on Paul.
All of which is to say: Phoenix's only chance of hanging with Los Angeles will depend on a) dead-eye shooting and b) stellar play from their star-studded backcourt.
On Friday, LeBron compared his first career postseason battle with Chris Paul to facing two of the game's other great thinkers.
“Every time I faced Rondo in the past, I knew I had to be not only on my A-game as far as my game, but also my mind as well,” LeBron said. “And that’s the same with Draymond, every time you go against those Warriors teams. So I’ve had experiences with those two guys, so that will definitely help me in matching up with CP because I know the competitor and I know the I.Q. of the basketball player that he is.”
“It’s going to be a group effort,” Vogel said. “Not just with multiple guys being on Devin, but how attentive our bigs are. They have to win as many battles as the guy on the ball. … We just got to make sure that we have that same type of performance against really both Chris Paul and Book and all their other guys that come off screens. Cam Payne has been playing really well for them. But our bigs did a really good job against CP.”
Schröder has been Los Angeles' third-best player and secondary ball-handler all season, but Caruso and KCP often close games. On Wednesday, Schröder admitted to not being in tip-top shape following his extended absence (it remains unclear if he contracted COVID-19).
Schroder said his fitness hasn't fully recovered from a stint on health and safety protocols. “Conditioning-wise, not all the way back, I’ve been out 10 days and didn’t do nothing, I was at home…I’m gonna work my way into it…give it everything I have.”
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) May 19, 2021
Against the Golden State Warriors in the play-in game, Schröder was thoroughly outplayed by Stephen Curry (no shame in that) and was subbed out for Caruso after some forced shot attempts late in the game.
Caruso's defense on Curry down the stretch is already the stuff of legend, capping off one of the best games of his career, on both ends.
It’s a crime that Alex Caruso is not going to make an All-Defensive Team
This possession is nuts pic.twitter.com/0gHeqYrxHh
— Ry (@JustRyCole) May 20, 2021
Even if the Lakers feast inside, Vogel will need his three lead guards to prevent Phoenix's backcourt from mirroring of production of L.A.'s frontcourt.
How Vogel deploys his gaurds — and the rotation in general — will be a fascinating subplot, in this series and beyond, especially with Schröder hoping to use the playoff run to prove he's worth more than the $21 million per season that he turned down from Los Angeles.
This should be good. Lakers in five.