10:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Suns -11.5, Over/Under: 232.5
Opposite poles of the western playoff picture meet for the fourth (and perhaps final) time this season as the unmitigated disaster that has been the Los Angeles Lakers travels to the desert to meet the torrid Phoenix Suns, who have wrapped up home court advantage throughout the postseason, from Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Unless you’ve been immersed in self-isolation, then you’re no doubt well acquainted with the struggles of the Lakers (31-47, 11th in Western Conference), who in just two seasons’ time have managed to go from reigning NBA Champions to apparently doing everything in their power to miss the playoffs altogether. After an offseason in which they made headlines in acquiring the services of (2016-2017 MVP) Russell Westbrook (18.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 29.4% 3FG, 66.5% FT, 7.5 REB, 7.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.0 PER) in an attempt to create one last Big Three centered around (four-time MVP) LeBron James (30.3 PTS, 52.4% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 75.6% FT, 8.2 REB, 6.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 26.3 PER), Los Angeles was expected to challenge for the Larry O’Brien trophy once again. While that certainly appeared to be the case on paper, matters have played out very differently on the hardwood. So, what in the name of Jerry West has happened in LA, you ask? For those of you looking for better basketball and a more compelling drama, we’d like to direct your attention to HBO Max’s Winning Time, for this Hollywood production has been nothing short of a box office flop for a variety of reasons, ranging from unfortunate injuries to inept coaching to a complete and utter lack of chemistry. Starting off with the list of injuries, one of the main reasons that (General Manager) Rob Pelinka greenlighted the trade for Westbrook was to ensure that the rotation wouldn’t drop off precipitously in the event that either James or (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis (23.2 PTS, 53.2% FG, 19.1% 3FG, 71.5% FT, 9.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 2.3 BLK, 24.1 PER) were sidelined for a prolonged period of time. After all, the two All-Stars missed TWENTY-SEVEN and THIRTY-SIX games respectively a year ago, with the latter’s strained groin ultimately proving to be their death blow in last year’s playoff series with the Suns. Unfortunately, it’s been more of the same this season as James has missed TWENTY-TWO games thus far with an ailing ankle, while Davis has been out of action for THIRTY-NINE contests due to an MCL sprain in his left knee and a sprained right ankle. In fact, this Big Three has only featured together in TWENTY-ONE of their seventy-eight games thus far, and even with that said, the Lakers are only 11-10 in such outings, a fact that only underlines their lack of chemistry with each other. And this brings us to the Westbrook debacle; at the behest of James and Davis, Pelinka parted ways with much of his depth and even more draft capital to bring the prolific, yet oft traveled All-Star home to Southern California. On his fourth team in as many years, the now 33-year-old has proven to be an extremely poor fit in Los Angeles, particularly alongside James and Davis, mainly because his skill set doesn’t compliment his teammates. Simply put, this guy is NOT an off-ball weapon, shooting a miserable 29.4% from downtown, while offering his worst scoring output in twelve years (18.4), making him a consistently frustrating conundrum for (Head Coach) Frank Vogel and his Coaching Staff. Vogel opted to go so far as to bench him for a short spell before the All-Star Break, but with the absences of both James and Davis, he has been forced to keep the erstwhile floor general out on the hardwood out of necessity. And speaking of Vogel, it’s likely that he will fall on the proverbial sword once this season is complete, for this disaster happened on his watch, and even just two years removed from directing LA to their NBA record SEVENTEENTH championship, his complete inability to solve this puzzle has been nothing short of tiring for the franchise and its faithful. With that said, Pelinka absolutely owns a good deal of blame too, for he did Vogel & Co no favors in disassembling the supporting cast in favor of replacing it with Westbrook and veteran bit parts who seriously lack teeth on the defensive end. Lastly, arguably the biggest sin has been wasting another impressive season from James, who even at the age of thirty-eight has managed to lead the league in scoring (30.3). A dreadful 4-16 since the All-Star Break, the Lakers have sunk to SIXTEEN games under .500, which is the first time in LeBron’s career that he can say such a thing, while his team rides a six-game losing streak that currently has them two full games behind the Spurs for the final play-in seed. When we last saw them, Los Angeles was in the midst of getting hammered at home by the shorthanded Nuggets, 129-118 this past Sunday at crypto.com Center. With James sitting out with that tender ankle, the hosts ran out of gas in the fourth quarter as they were outscored 34-24 and could muster just 8-of-23 shooting from the field (34.8%), while the visitors were indeed in their bag on 10-of-16 shooting (62.5%). Davis (who returned on Friday) and Westbrook accounted for FIFTY-FIVE points on an efficient 22-of-40 shooting (55.0%), nineteen rebounds, and fifteen assists, but it simply wasn’t enough for the purple & gold. Denver routinely abused them on the other end of the court, netting 57.3% of their attempts overall, and outscoring them by a combined TWENTY-SEVEN points from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe. With just four games left in the regular season and their postseason dreams on life support, reports out of the City of Angels indicate that James (who is day-to-day) will NOT be suiting up tonight, creating even less optimism for these Lakers as they travel to Phoenix; in three meetings this season, they’ve been bested by an average margin of 19.0 points per game, including their most recent encounter, a 140-111 drubbing at Footprint Center back on March 14th. This one though, is nothing short of a must-win for Vogel & Co, who with a loss tonight coupled with a Spurs victory over the Nuggets will be officially ELIMINATED from qualification for the play-in tournament.
Meanwhile, it’s been a very different story in the desert where the Suns (62-16, 1st in Western Conference) have established themselves as the overwhelming favorite to come out of the West and return to the NBA Finals after very nearly earning their first O’Brien trophy in franchise history last summer. After improving by a whopping SEVENTEEN games last year, Phoenix has ascended to another level this season, matching a franchise record in wins (62) with four games yet to play. Spending much of the campaign comfortably in first place, (Head Coach) Monty Williams & Co have earned the luxury of taking a step back and resting a bit down this final stretch, for in amassing a seven-game lead in the standings, they’ve already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. And it’s with that said that that particular mandate has already been issued to the team, who after going 14-4 since the All-Star Break, followed a nine-game winning streak with back-to-back losses for only the third time all season. Indeed, Sunday’s 117-96 loss at the lowly Thunder featured all the hallmarks of a contender who has already clinched; with the likes of (All-Star Guard) Devin Booker (26.6 PTS, 46.4% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 86.5% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.9 AST 1.2 STL, 21.2 PER), (emerging Center) Deandre Ayton (17.1 PTS, 63.6% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 74.3% FT, 10.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.8 PER), and (veteran Swingman) Jae Crowder (9.5 PTS, 40.3% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 79.8% FT, 5.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 11.4 PER) all sitting the affair out, Williams dived deep into his bench for a contest that ultimately proved to be little more than a training ground for his younger players. (Young snipers) Cameron Johnson (12.7 PTS, 46.6% FG, 43.6% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 4.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 15.6 PER) and Landry Shamet (8.1 PTS, 39.5% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 83.8% FT, 1.8 REB, 1.6 AST, 10.5 PER) received valuable minutes after returning from brief absences, accounting for ten and fourteen points respectively, proving that there is plenty of rust to rid themselves of in shooting a combined 8-of-25 from the floor (32.0%), including a dreadful 4-of-19 from downtown (21.0%). It was also a vital tune-up for (All-Star Point Guard) Chris Paul (14.9 PTS, 49.2% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 83.5% FT, 4.3 REB, 10.7 AST, 1.9 STL, 20.8 PER), who made his fifth consecutive start after missing the first fifteen games post-All-Star Break with a broken right thumb. Since his return, the 10-time All-NBA selection has slipped right back into his role as Point GOD, averaging 14.0 points on an efficient 54.9% shooting, along with 11.0 assists and 1.8 steals. It’s no coincidence that the Suns’ rise began as soon as the veteran arrived eighteen months ago, for even at the ripe old age of thirty-six, Paul has proven once again capable of raising the level of those around him. And that’s been the biggest reason for this team’s success: their internal growth has been off the charts. Booker had been a strong performer for a few years pre-CP3, only to blossom into a bonafide superstar alongside the maestro, while the likes of Ayton, Johnson, and (3 & D extraordinaire) Mikal Bridges (14.4 PTS, 53.2% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 82.8% FT, 4.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.5 PER) have all grown exponentially. As a result, this team is just really @#$%!^& good; Phoenix ranks third in the National Basketball Association in both Offensive (115.0) and Defensive (107.2) Rating, leading to the best Net Rating (+7.8) in the league, while ranking third in effective field goal percentage (offense) at 55.1%, eighth in turnover percentage (11.6%), and first in overall field goal percentage (48.7%). Furthermore, they allow an effective field goal percentage of just 50.9% (2nd Overall) and force a turnover on 13.0% of their opponents’ possessions, eighth-best in the NBA. Essentially, this group plays extremely controlled, efficient basketball, with both Booker and Paul proving to absolute killers with the game on the line. However, the biggest difference between this team and the one that came up short in last summer’s NBA Finals is depth; the additions of Shamet and (veteran Center) JaVale McGee (9.3 PTS, 63.6% FG, 71.5% FT, 6.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 1.1 BLK, 23.2 PER), coupled with the return of (reserve Forward) Torrey Craig (6.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 28.4% 3FG, 70.6% FT, 4.4 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 11.0 PER) at the Trade Deadline, has afforded Williams with a MUCH deeper rotation that now goes 10+ deep, making them bigger and more physical, which should come in handy if they happen to return to the Finals and match wits with any of the East’s bruising contenders. Granted, coaches generally shorten their rotations considerably during the postseason, but in this case, the 50-year-old has plenty of options. Anyways, ask the Lakers how they feel about the Suns. After eliminating them in six games in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Phoenix has OWNED them in their three meetings this season; offensively, Williams’ troops have met very little resistance against them, averaging a whopping 121.0 points on 50.1% shooting from the field, while dishing out 32.0 assists in comparison to committing just 12.0 turnovers, all the while attempting nearly ten more shots per game. Booker has been particularly happy to see the purple & gold this season, averaging 25.3 points on 48.3% shooting, including 12-of-27 from three (44.0%), with 5.3 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in those three encounters. Paul also enjoys playing the Lakers quite a bit, averaging 17.0 points and 11.5 assists in two meetings this year, and over the course of his lengthy career has posted 19.4 points and 10.5 assists in fifty-seven affairs. Though there really isn’t much of anything for the Suns to play for in this one, keep in mind that if Los Angeles does manage to close the gap and sneak into the play-in tournament AND advance to the playoffs, then they will be pitted against none other than Phoenix, so while this is their final encounter of the regular season, it’s within the realm of possibility that they could be seeing each other again in a week’s time. Then again, Paul, Booker, and the rest of the boys can effectively kill off any chance they may have of prolonging their miserable campaign tonight, which as bad as it sounds, is absolutely something that many people out in Southern California are clamoring for.