The Lakers have a simple and powerful recipe for success. They haven’t been able to turn to it consistently over the past few months, thanks to a pair of high-profile injuries that transformed a contender into a seventh seed, but it’s always been there. Combine LeBron James with Anthony Davis, two all-time talents capable of overwhelming defenders with their sheer size, skill, and scoring chops; mix in an elite defense overseen by head coach Frank Vogel that can silence opposing offenses; season to taste; serve with trophies.
It’s how they won the 2020 NBA championship. It’s what had them at 21-6, in second place in the West, when Davis went down in February. It’s what won their play-in game against the Warriors, despite 37 points from Stephen Curry. It was largely absent in Game 1 against the Suns, though, as Devin Booker looked like the best player on the floor, Davis got outshined by fellow former no. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, and LeBron lacked the verve and burst to dominate a tough, disciplined team that showed zero fear against the defending champs.
It was present and accounted for on Tuesday, though, as the Lakers’ superstars and role players bounced back in a big way for a 109-102 win over the Suns that knotted the opening-round series at one game apiece. Specifically, it came back with a vengeance late to put away a Phoenix team that refused to quit despite All-Star point guard Chris Paul being severely hampered by the right shoulder contusion he suffered in Game 1.
The Suns had erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in a spirited charge led by backup point guard Cameron Payne, who played the game of his life (19 points and seven assists off the bench) with Paul unable to contribute much, and whose driving layup with just over four minutes to go cut L.A.’s lead to 93-92. After an empty possession in which the Lakers overpassed themselves into a shot-clock violation, Vogel subbed out Marc Gasol and came back for the final 3:40 with the Lakers’ hammer lineup: Davis at center, LeBron at power forward, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Dennis Schröder on the wings. Before Game 2, My Ringer teammate Zach Kram detailed how dominant AD-at-the-5 lineups have been; this one slammed the door shut with terrifying ease and quickness.
Sliding Davis to the 5 removed a slow-footed center for the Suns to target in screening actions, vaporizing opportunities for Booker and Payne to hunt mismatches off the bounce. Bringing Caruso in to run with KCP and Schröder gave the Lakers three savvy on-ball defenders adept at fighting through screens, staying attached, and shrinking the pockets of open space through which the Suns could try to drive or thread passes.
The move increased the Lakers’ switchability, and ramped up the tenacity of L.A.’s pressure on the ball and rotations behind it; you could feel claustrophobia start to set in on the Suns, manifesting in hesitations, cough-ups, and four straight stops in a two-minute span late in the fourth:
When you’re not scoring against the Lakers, you’ve got to stop them; in the context of this matchup, that means hoping that LeBron and AD miss jumpers. When they don’t …
… you lose. Like I said: It’s a pretty good recipe.
After opening the series with a disappointing 5-for-16 performance, Davis vowed to be better in Game 2. He kept his promise, stepping to the center of the Lakers’ game plan—in LeBron’s words: “Give him the ball early, often, and always, it’s that simple”—and shining in the spotlight. Davis attacked from the opening tip, making Ayton and Jae Crowder feel him on the offensive end—sometimes a bit too much—and drawing 13 fouls that led to 21 free throw attempts, fueling his run to a game-high 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks, and a steal in 40 minutes of work:
Davis also played a big part in the Lakers’ teamwide effort to make life more difficult on Booker than it was during his 34-point, eight-assist postseason debut.
It became very clear very quickly on Tuesday that Paul was still limited by the shoulder contusion. He lacked the customary zip on his passes that he’s rifled through countless tight windows over the years. He took only five shots in 23 minutes, passing up the kinds of pull-up elbow jumpers on which he’s built a career because he couldn’t really lift up his right arm to shoot them. He finished with six points, five assists, and three rebounds, and sat for the final seven minutes of regulation, which you know must have killed one of the game’s great crunch-time assassins.
“That was all me,” Suns coach Monty Williams told reporters after the game. “Just looking at him holding his arm the way that he was, I just couldn’t watch him run like that.”
Without Paul to balance the offense, Booker’s burden grew, and the Lakers endeavored to make it as heavy as possible by changing up their coverages. They went away from the Game 1 strategy of sending a double-team at him every time he had the ball, choosing instead to keep him guessing with different looks. Sometimes the big man guarding in the pick-and-roll came all the way up to the level of the screen; sometimes he showed near the level, and sometimes he dropped all the way back into the paint while Booker’s man chased him over the top of the screen. (One consistent wrinkle: When Booker got into the paint, the big man stepped up to stop the ball while Booker’s man sprinted back to cover up Ayton, trying to take away the easy drop-off passes that Ayton feasted on in Game 1.)
Sometimes L.A. switched, letting Davis, LeBron, or Kyle Kuzma pick him up to make him deal with more length on a possession. Sometimes they crowded him all the way out to half court; sometimes they did spring the double or hard trap midway through the play; when Booker got into the midrange area where he’s most comfortable pulling up for jumpers, whenever possible, the Lakers showed him two (and sometimes three) bodies before he could get into his motion.
That’s a lot to throw at a player—the kind of full-suite game plan you can only pull off if you’ve got smart, talented, experienced defenders who trust each other. Even if you nail it all, it won’t work every time; Booker still popped for 31 points, because he’s that damn good. But all the early-game chaos kept him from really catching a rhythm until the third quarter; he had to earn more than half of those points at the foul line (17-for-17 from the stripe, 7-for-17 from the field); and he dished just three assists and had four turnovers. From the Lakers’ perspective, it was a marked improvement from Game 1—and, if Paul’s not going to be able to get back near 100 percent and Payne cools off, it could be a blueprint for putting the Suns’ offense to sleep as the series progresses.
And so, after all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth following Game 1, the Lakers leave Phoenix with home-court advantage and a chance to put the Suns on the brink of elimination back at Staples Center. They seem to have firmed up their center rotation for this series, with Andre Drummond (15 points on 7-for-11 shooting, 12 rebounds, two steals, and a block in 24 minutes) turning in one of his best games as a Laker, Gasol (six points on a pair of 3s, two rebounds, two assists, and a steal in 20 minutes) playing well after a DNP-CD in Game 1, and Montrezl Harrell taking Gasol’s place on the bench. LeBron looked much more lively on both ends, even if his ankle’s still a work in progress, and confirmed he’s still the determining factor when it counts, chipping in 23 points and nine assists and hitting the game-icing shots. And they reaffirmed just how dominant their AD-at-the-5 and smother-you-on-defense lineup still is, even against a team as disciplined, balanced, and ferocious as Phoenix.
After playing two full seasons’ worth of games in 18 months with an abbreviated offseason, and with LeBron and AD not quite at the peak of their powers at all times, we don’t know yet whether the Lakers will be able to consistently conjure their best selves for four straight rounds. They proved on Tuesday, though, that they can definitely conjure it for four minutes—and if they can do it for the right four minutes, they can still beat anybody.