The Phoenix Suns are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after finishing the regular season with the second-best record in the NBA. They won over 70% of their games this season after winning less than half of them last year thanks to the offseason arrival of 11-time All Star Chris Paul and the continued rise of Devin Booker.
In recognition of the Phoenix’s jump in the standings despite playing in the perennially the deep Western Conference, head coach Monty Williams was named the National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year and is one of the favorites for the league’s official Coach of the Year award.
However, their reward for their strong regular season showing is a first round series against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the defending champion LA Lakers. The Lakers struggled with injuries over most of the second half of the season which caused them to slide down the standings and into the Play-in Tournament where they dispatched the Golden State Warriors in a 103-100 thriller.
They come into the series against Phoenix in much better form, riding a six-game winning streak that started with a 123-110 win against the Suns just two weeks ago.
The ability of Phoenix to navigate through the Lakers’ league-best defense (#1 in defensive rating over the regular season) will be one of the biggest factors in this seven-game showdown.
Paul and Booker were the driving forces behind the Suns’ offense during the regular season and will be constantly hounded by LA’s bevy of perimeter defenders led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig, and Cam Johnson will have to consistently make their threes to keep the defense honest and give the Suns a better chance to advance to the second round.
Bridges, in particular, will be needed on both sides of the ball. Now in his third year in the league, his rapid development has played a crucial part in the team’s growth from last year’s NBA Bubble feel-good-story to the West’s second seed. He made a name early in his career as a versatile defender and has consistently improved on offense every year. His field goal percentage has climbed from 43% in his rookie year to 54% in ’20-’21 while his three-point shooting numbers have gone from 33% to 42.5% on more than four attempts per game.
More importantly, Bridges has made strides as a secondary playmaker, showing flashes of brilliance when put in weak-side situations after the defense overloads on Paul or Booker. His ability to showcase this against the Lakers will be key for the Suns and give them an extra playmaking threat on offense that can relieve pressure from their All-Star backcourt.
He’ll also be tasked with covering reigning Finals MVP LeBron James. It is impossible to completely shut down James, but Phoenix’s ability to slow him down will drastically improve their chances with the Lakers lacking elite perimeter playmaking beyond the four-time NBA MVP.
The toughest match-up for the Suns though will be fought in the paint. DeAndre Ayton would have probably preferred a match-up against the less intimidating Golden State frontline, but instead he has to grind it out as Phoenix’s only traditional center against Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ gang of centers. Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol all play vastly different styles, but all pose a threat in their own right when on the court.
Davis sat out the first two games of their regular season series with a calf strain and Phoenix won comfortably, but he played in that final regular season meeting and scored season-high 42 points to secure the win. Jae Crowder, Frank Kaminsky, and Dario Saric will join Ayton in the battle down low and though they may be overmatched physically, a bit of creativity from Williams and his coaching staff can help negate the perceived disadvantage.
The Suns have already exceeded expectations this season and this will be the debut playoff series for Booker, Bridges, and Ayton, but don’t expect a team led by Chris Paul to be content with just making the playoffs. The Lakers, on the other hand, came into this season with aspirations of winning a second consecutive championship and there’s no reason to believe that the team has backtracked from this lofty goal despite the turbulent regular season.
The two teams’ superstar tandems will take all of the headlines, but the play of their supporting casts may be what ultimately tips the scales in this series. After all, the last playoff series that the Suns played in was against this same Laker franchise back in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Los Angeles’ Metta World Peace made the signature play of the classic series: A game-winning putback at the buzzer off a Kobe Bryant miss in Game 5 that broke a 2-2 series tie and led to the Lakers eventually wrapping it up in six games and winning back-to-back titles that year.
The Suns and Lakers will play their first game on Monday, May 24, at 3:30 AM Manila time. Who you got?