The Phoenix Suns are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season. They traded for Chris Paul in the offseason and went from being a fringe playoff team to a legitimate championship contender. Paul and Devin Booker performed like the best backcourt in the NBA this season while helping end a 10-year playoff drought for the franchise. The Suns exceeded expectations by finishing as the second seed in the Western Conference with a record of 51-21. This season has been a major success, but now they have to face off with the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers are the seventh seed after struggling with health this season. LeBron James missed 27 games, Anthony Davis missed 36 games, and Dennis Schroder missed 11. Now that those three are healthy, Los Angeles has returned to being one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. Davis and LeBron can both go for 30-35 points on any given night, and they are surrounded by high-level role players. Even with the defending champions back at full strength, the Suns will not back down. This will end up being one of the best first-round matchups.
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Odds provided by Jazz Sportsbook. Please gamble responsibly.
Series – Los Angeles Lakers: -150
Series – Phoenix Suns: +120
The Lakers are the lower seed but the odds are in their favor. Oddsmakers view them as the better team with LeBron, Davis, and Schroder back in the lineup. With the line being set at -150 for the Lakers, this is not a bad bet. You could argue that the they should be favored by even more. LeBron and Davis are the two best players in this series and the Lakers have a stronger bench than the Suns.
With the Suns odds sitting at +120, they are in the rare position of being the higher-seeded underdog. Phoenix is not as talented as the Lakers but they are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. If the they can keep the games close, Booker and Paul will have opportunities to work their magic late in games. They have been two of the best clutch performers this season. The Suns have home-court advantage and are playing with more team chemistry currently. The Lakers are the safer bet but they did not look like themselves in the play-in game. Putting money on the Suns is not a bad idea, either.
Chris Paul vs LeBron James
The Suns acquired Paul in the offseason because they needed a veteran guard who could make plays in big games. Paul has performed at an All-NBA level this season and they need that to continue in the playoffs. The Suns lack playoff experience and are getting thrown into the fire against the defending champs. Paul has to make sure the team gets off to a hot start in every game. Falling behind early against a great defensive team is a recipe for disaster; he will need to control the pace of the game and limit turnovers. Most importantly, Paul has to be aggressive as a scorer. He and Booker have to match the production of James and Davis if they hope to win this series.
LeBron struggled in the first half of the play-in game and did not look like himself, but he turned it on in the second half. He finished the game with a triple-double and made the game-winning shot in a 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors. That’s the LeBron they will need in order to win this series. He will have to play as he did earlier in the season when he was an MVP candidate. LeBron will have to deal with two very good defenders in Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. If they can make things hard for the reigning Finals MVP, the Lakers will struggle.
Devin Booker vs Anthony Davis
Paul is the leader of the Suns but Booker is the team’s best player. He has been hovering around superstar status the past two seasons and now he gets to prove it in the playoffs. This may be his first playoff appearance but he’ll have to perform like a seasoned vet. The teams’ lack of shot creators puts more pressure on Booker as a scorer. The shooting guard will likely need at least 30 points per game for them to win this series. The Suns also will look for Booker to assist in ball-handling duties with Paul. His contribution as a playmaker will allow for Paul to look for his shot more often.
Davis has not looked like himself all season. After battling injuries, he is healthy and the Lakers need him to return to form. The Suns do not have one player who matches up with Davis defensively. In the one game he played against the Suns this season, Davis scored 42 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton and Crowder will each spend time defending Davis. He should be able to take advantage of these matchups. It will be tough for the Suns to beat the Lakers if Davis performs like the top-10 player that he is.
Jae Crowder vs Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Crowder and Caldwell-Pope are the two most important role players in this series. Both have similar impacts on their team. They’re good defenders who shoot the three with accuracy. Crowder shot 38.9 percent from long-range this season, while Caldwell-Pope shot 41 percent. They will both be tasked with defending the star players from the opposing team in this series. Crowder will spend time defending LeBron and Davis while Caldwell-Pope will spend time defending Paul and Booker. With the Suns being the less talented team, Crowder has the larger challenge on his hands. If he is unable to somehow neutralize the Lakers’ duo, then it’s going to be a long series for the Suns.
Los Angeles Lakers X-Factor: Dennis Schroder
Earlier this month, Schroder was away from the Lakers for two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19. He’s played in three games since then and is still getting back into playing shape. Schroder is the Lakers’ third-leading scorer at 15.4 points per game and he ranks second on the team with 5.8 assists per game. He gives the Lakers another capable scorer and playmaker next to LeBron but it’s his defense that the team needs most in this series. Schroder will need to make Paul uncomfortable. CP3 is the brains of the operation for the Suns so if Schroder (along with Caldwell-Pope) can bother him, that likely should disrupt the flow of the entire offense.
Phoenix Suns X-Factor: Deandre Ayton
Ayton will be the key to the series for the Suns. His regular-season average of 14.4 points per game will not cut it in the playoffs. Ayton is one of the NBA’s most skilled bigs in the post offensively but never looks to dominate. That will have to change this series. The Lakers are at their best when they play small without a center on the floor. If Ayton can force them out of that lineup with dominant post play, it would give the Suns a better shot at winning the series. He also has to impact the game defensively. His pick and roll defense must be sharp and he has to contest LeBron on drives without fouling. Ayton was the number one pick in the 2018 NBA Draft for a reason, it’s time for him to show it.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers 4, Phoenix Suns 2
The Suns are a promising young team but the Lakers are a team full of veterans who all have one goal in sight: repeating as champions. Booker and Paul will fight hard, Ayton may even step his game up but that will not be enough. LeBron and Davis are just too much for the Suns to overcome. The Lakers will win the series and their road to the NBA finals as a seventh seed will be underway.
Follow Darius Walker on Twitter @BullWalker1
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