There was always something odd about seeing the Lakers in the play-in round of the NBA playoffs, battling for a chance to play the second seed in the West, the Phoenix Suns. The Phoenix Suns? The same franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in ten years since they lost in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Their opponent then? Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
This year’s version of the Lakers limped into the NBA playoffs with Lebron James and Anthony Davis missing significant time this season due to numerous injuries. The defending champs looked disorganized and disinterested all year long and stumbled to a seventh-place seeding.
Five days ago, when Phoenix took Game 1 of the series, the echo chamber that has been calling for, perhaps even demanding the start of Lebron’s career decline, was louder than ever. The Lakers can’t win outside of the bubble, they said, Lebron is finished.
Game 2 was a different story though. Game 2 was the Anthony Davis show, something that has been missing from the NBA all season. The Unibrow took over, with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 blocks. Great teams adapt to their strengths, and the Lakers realized that between Davis and Andre Drummond, they could bully the Suns down low.
Outside of Deandre Ayton, the Suns have no answer for the Lakers’ big men, and while Ayton is a talented scorer he still hasn’t quite reached the full potential of his defensive capabilities that could utilize his 7’6” wingspan.
Ayton played 42 minutes in Game 2 and 41 minutes in Game 3, where Davis once again put the Lakers on his back with another 34 points and 11 rebounds. Having to guard Davis, Drummond, and at times Marc Gasol will take its toll on Ayton, and in a conference full of great centers like Gobert, Jokic, and Nurkic, the Lakers should be commended for adding both Drummond and Gasol to the depth of the roster.
The real problem for Phoenix is that Chris Paul is quite clearly ailing from his shoulder injury, despite what head coach Monty Wiliams says. Paul has played 22 and 27 minutes since his injury in Game 1 and has lost much of his playing time to Cameron Payne.
Look, Payne has played surprisingly well, but intentionally taking Paul off the court in the NBA playoffs is not going to increase your chances of winning. After all, without CP3 on the floor, the Suns are right back where they have been for years, mired in mediocrity, without a true floor general to lead them.
If Paul remains hobbled and Ayton is forced to continue to play full games, the Suns really won’t have much chance at winning this series. They need an answer for AD, and with all due respect, Ayton, Dario Saric, and Frank Kaminsky are not it. Game 4 at the Staples Center is on Sunday, and unless Phoenix can turn things around, their first playoff appearance in over a decade will be a quick one.