After an eleven-year drought filled with poor lottery picks, seven different head coaches, several consecutive 25-win or lower seasons and front office dysfunction, the Phoenix Suns have returned to the NBA playoffs. But they have a brutal task ahead — taking on the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
Ironically, the Suns are facing the Lakers in the playoffs just as they did in their last series a decade ago. That year, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Co. lost in six games to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Phoenix earned the No. 2 seed in the loaded Western Conference with a 51-21 record, their best mark since their 48-win 2013-14 campaign. The team looked to be on the rise under head coach Monty Williams, following an 8-0 run in the bubble last year.
To supplement superstar guard Devin Booker, general manager James Jones traded for perennial all-pro point guard Chris Paul. The move has hugely paid off, with Paul averaging 16.4 points per game and shooting nearly 50% from the field. He also made his 11th All-Star Team.
Devin Booker made his second straight All-Star appearance and averaged 25.6 points per game, playing with the most talented roster he’s had in his career thus far. Mikal Bridges started all 72 games, and is a big part of a defense that finished ninth in defensive rating. Bridges also knocked down 54% of his field goals, and is no stranger to big moments, having won two national championships at Villanova.
Veterans Torrey Craig and Jae Crowder have been huge veteran additions to a young team. Crowder was part of the Miami Heat’s finals run last season, and has played in the playoffs for four different teams.
Though they fell to the play-in tournament, the Lakers (42-30) are not your average seventh seed. LeBron James only played in 45 games this year after suffering a high ankle sprain against the Atlanta Hawks March 20. Anthony Davis also missed significant time with achilles tendon and calf injuries.
Losing two superstars could have been catastrophic for this team, but LA’s supporting cast stepped up on both ends. The Lakers have depth and the league’s top-rated defense.
Dennis Schröder has played 32.1 minutes per game and has averaged 15.4 points while Kyle Kuzma averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 total rebounds. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.7 PPG) and center Montrezl Harrell (13.5 PPG and 6.2 total rebounds) have also been a few of the key contributors to the team.
The Suns may hold a 2-1 advantage over LA in the regular season, but that comes with a big asterisk. In the first game, the Suns won 114-104, but the Lakers were without Davis. Phoenix was again victorious 111-94 in the second game, but Davis and James were both out. Once Davis returned to the lineup in the third matchup, he had 42 points,12 rebounds and five assists, leading LA to a 123-110 win.
Going into this series, the gaps between the two teams’ playoff experience is large. Besides Crowder and Paul, much of the Suns roster is making their playoff debut.
The Lakers focus is going to be on shutting down Booker and Paul. If the defense is giving them trouble, Phoenix’s role players like Cameron Payne, Dario Šarić, Cam Johnson, Craig and Jevon Carter are going to have to step up in a big way. But if Booker and Paul can get hot, they can take over a game.
One question for Phoenix: what will their plan to guard James and Davis be? The 6-foot-6 Bridges and Crowder could be matched up on the 6-foot-9 James, but it is a tough task, whether his ankle is 100% or not.
Phoenix center Deandre Ayton has played at a high level at times this season, but how will he hold up on defense against Davis? Beyond Davis, the Lakers have even more size. Two-time all star center Andre Drummond was picked up on the buyout market from Cleveland, and former Grizzlies star Marc Gasol played in 52 games this season. Ayton being aggressive and playing well at both ends of the floor is going to be a huge key to the Suns winning this series.
Phoenix is young, and has been one of the best teams in the NBA this season. But they have not played LA with both Davis and James in the starting lineup. If both are healthy they will be difficult to stop. But the Suns have the depth and the ability to hang with any team, as shown by their performance this season.
Prediction: Suns in Seven