Anthony Davis and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers heard all the noise after their 99-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Now, all they had to do was respond.
The aggression was apparent in both the individual and team play as the Lakers tied the series with the Suns thanks to a huge 109-102 win.
Davis and Andre Drummond were particularly aggressive as they atoned for Deandre Ayton thoroughly outplaying them in Game 1. Davis came up with the type of game that would silence all the haters and assert himself in what will likely be a slugfest of a series. The four-time All-NBA teamer finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and three blocks, numbers that reflected his all-around effort in response to the flak he received after the loss to the Suns.
Meanwhile, Drummond had a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds at halftime and finished with 15 points in 12 rebounds in a game where his relentless effort on the boards was needed against the young and spry Ayton, who had another solid outing with 22 points and 10 rebounds but could not stop Davis and Drummond from wreaking havoc in the paint. LeBron James had 23 points and nine assists but he and the rest of Los Angeles followed AD’s lead in this one.
Defense set the tone for the defending champions from the jump as they did their best in taking the Suns out of their element. The Lakers tweaked their defensive schemes around Devin Booker, who had to take on more playmaking duties with Chris Paul limited by his right shoulder contusion.
The double-teams he faced forced him to make decisions on the fly and allowed Los Angeles to clog passing lanes and force ill-advised shots and turnovers. Phoenix finished the game with 13 turnovers, with nine coming in the first-half. Booker and Chris Paul combined for seven turnovers and couldn’t consistently establish the offensive rhythm they had back in Game 1. Apart from Ayton’s easy dunks, the Suns had to bleed for every point and the Lakers’ nine steals and six blocks reflected their stinginess on defense.
In a way, it was a complete game for Los Angeles, as they were tested during certain stretches of the game. The Lakers led by as many as 15 points (63-48 with 9:35 left in the third quarter), but Phoenix rallied thanks to Cameron Payne, who took over point guard duties from Chris Paul. Paul played just 23 minutes but his six points and five assists in limited action proved he could still be dangerous in a short amount of time.
The inclusion of Marc Gasol in the Lakers’ playoff rotation added another element to the Laker offense as quick outlet passes resulted in easy baskets. Gasol’s ability to shoot from outside also required adjustments from the Suns’ defense and likely opened up the paint for Davis and Dennis Schroder. He may have finished with six points, two rebounds, and two assists, but his 3-pointer with 6:02 left in the game ended a 16-7 Suns run and temporarily restored the lead in Los Angeles’ favor.
Schroder also made the most out of the opportunities he was given as he finished Game 2 with 24 points off two 3-pointers and multiple quick drives to the basket. His effort forced Booker and the rest of the Suns backcourt to work hard on the defensive end, with Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder now having to divert some of their efforts into guarding him as well.
Moving forward, there are still areas of improvement in terms of their approach against Phoenix. The defense had been heavily focused on Paul whenever he was on the court and the likes of Ayton and Torrey Craig have gotten easy baskets off drop passes. Drummond switching on Paul also put the Lakers at a disadvantage, so decisions to switch or not must be carefully made. Better overall communication on defense will help shut down those gaps.
Game 1 losses are not uncommon for Los Angeles. They lost both the first games to the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets in the first two rounds of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the Orlando bubble. The Lakers made adjustments after both defeats and swept both Blazers and Rockets enroute to their 17th NBA title.
The Los Angeles Lakers took care of business by stealing a game from the Phoenix Suns, who were supposed to win both games at home. The bigger takeaway, however, was their change in tone, which if they build on in the succeeding games can change the complexion of the series and swing things in their favor.