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Lakers Suns preview

What to know about Lakers-Suns before LeBron James and Chris Paul play chess

Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns tip off one of the more unique No. 7 vs. No. 2 series in NBA history. Let’s set the stage for the first career postseason matchup between LeBron James and Chris Paul.

Season Series

Phoenix took two of three matchups, but that’s hardly indicative of, well, anything. The first meeting came without Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond. L.A. shot 52%, LeBron had his way (38 points), Paul made one field goal, yet the Suns won.

The second clash, an easy Suns win, took place the day after James was unexpectedly sidelined with an ankle sprain. On May 9, the Lakers won handily thanks to a dominant 42-point performance from AD.

Health

In a sense, the Lakers are as healthy as they’ve been since February.

Per the team’s injury report — and despite a last-minute breach of COVID-19 protocols — everyone is a go for Game 1.

Los Angeles is dealing with wear and tear, rustiness, and conditioning issues. A few days back, Dennis Schröder admitted to not being in peak shape post-protocols.

James — who has tersely claimed his ankle is “good” in recent days — has played four games since March 20, and he looked concerningly grounded before winning the play-in game with his brain.

Davis looks back to normal. He’s listed on the injury report with a shoulder sprain, though he has referenced it approximately zero times.

The Suns have enjoyed ideal health all season, as if the mid-2000s era training staff is back doing … whatever it is that worked. That trend continues into Sunday, as Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton are ready to roll after missing time earlier this month.

Playoff experience

Maybe sumthin’, maybe nuthin’.

Matchup

Phoenix finished sixth in offensive rating (116.3) and defensive rating (110.4), and third in net rating (5.9). Unluckily, the franchise’s best post-Steve Nash campaign was rewarded with the worst possible first-round opponent.

I broke this down when ranking the Lakers’ potential playoff opponents, but the Suns have no answer for the Los Angeles frontcourt. Phoenix will throw Ayton (an improving but mediocre rim protector), Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig, Frank Kaminsky, and Dario Saric at Davis, Drummond, James, and any other bigs Frank Vogel deploys. Who are you taking?

As The Athletic’s Jovan Buha noted, the Suns allow the eighth-highest field goal percentage close to the basket. That should be exploitable for the Lakers — the NBA’s largest team.

Phoenix has a talent advantage in the backcourt with Paul and Devin Booker, though L.A. possesses a All-Defense-caliber group of guard defenders.

Plenty can happen over the course of 48 minutes, especially when an über-competitive maestro like Paul is conducting. On paper, though, it’s hard to find an area where the Suns have an edge in an extended series — besides for, possibly, home court and chemistry.

X-factor(s)

I won’t rehash what I wrote before, but Phoenix’s only hope (barring injury) is to shoot the lights out and see its All-Star backcourt administer more damage than the Lakers’ big frontcourt does. Therefore, it’ll be largely up to Dennis Schröder, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to prevent Paul and Booker from completely going off. Frankly, that should be enough.

“It’s going to be a group effort,” Vogel said. “Not just with multiple guys being on Devin, but how attentive our bigs are. … 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.”

Important things: turnovers and shooting

The Lakers’ two relative weaknesses on offense are 3-point shooting and turnovers. Phoenix, on the other hand, is amongst the most dead-eye and responsible teams in hoops.

Assuming the Suns send multiple bodies at Davis and James, the Los Angeles wings should have no shortage of open looks. The Lakers don’t need to become the 2015 Golden State Warriors, but they at least need to make sure they aren’t freely giving up possessions, nor shooting as icily as they did in February.

Phoenix finished second in field goal percentage (49%), first in mid-range percentage (47.4%), and second in free-throw percentage (83.4%). By nearly any metric and from any distance, the Suns are good at throwing the round orange thing into the ol’ peach basket.

The Lakers will have to alter their pick-and-roll coverage to adjust for Phoenix’s old-school mid-range hunting.

“It’s a difference for our team because we like to allow guys to play in the mid-range, and we like to take away the paint and the 3s knowing that the league has become a 3-point shooting league,” Davis said. “So we try to take that away. But this team thrives on mid-range field goals, so it’s a little different for us, but we know we can do it.”

Vogel is a brilliant defensive schemer, especially in a best-of-seven format.

“There’s a perception that defenses in the NBA want to give up the mid-range and take away 3s and basket attacks, but we want to take away everything, especially against a team that’s very good at knocking down mid-range shots, like CP3 and Book are,” Vogel said.

Look for Lakers guards to up the on-ball pressure.

What will the Lakers’ rotation look like?

This is the most fascinating question for the Lakers as they embark on their second playoff run in 10 months. Everybody on the roster besides Devontae Cacok, Jared Dudley, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Kostas Antetokounmpo has a case to be in Vogel’s rotation.

Markieff Morris, Ben McLemore, Montrezl Harrell, and Talen Horton-Tucker could be squeezed. Wesley Matthews has played his way into the rotation, and his shooting and wing defense should prove useful against the Suns.

Los Angeles’ center rotation has been under the microscope since Drummond came aboard, and that will continue throughout the playoffs. Drummond should remain the starter, but look for AD to play the majority of center minutes.

In this series, the Lakers can slide AD to the 5 and remain the larger team. Against an undersized Suns group, Vogel could test out Trezz, opt for Marc Gasol’s shooting, spacing, and playoff experience, or Drummond’s overwhelming size and prowess on the glass. As Vogel has said, these are good problems.

The King’s Gambit

One night after Anya Taylor-Joy provided essential chess tips on Saturday Night Live, James and Paul will square off in an epic meeting of two basketball grandmasters.

“It’s going to be comparable to playing against Rondo in a series, playing against Draymond in a series,” James observed. “You have those out-of-this-world-IQ-type guys and fierce competitors at the same time. So, it’s the same thing. 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, and that’s the same with Draymond every time you go against those Warriors teams. I’ve had experiences with those two guys that will definitely help me in matching up with CP, because I know the competitor and I know the IQ of the basketball player he is.”

James continued the metaphor when discussing Paul and Booker.

“The playoffs is all about chess moves, and it’s gonna be a chess match back and forth,” James said. “See who makes the best moves.”

Above all else, watching James and Paul try and Whiplash the game into their respective ideal tempos should be a delight.

Prediction

Out of respect for the Suns: Lakers (-250) in six.