The Lakers are no stranger to falling behind in a playoff series. They lost the first game twice in the playoffs, only to rebound each time with four straight wins. But Phoenix presents a more potent challenge than the Trail Blazers and Rockets in the bubble. In fact, the Suns are hands down the best team LeBron James has ever faced in the first round.
So if the Lakers are to stay on track for a repeat title, they have to adapt quickly to their loss in Game 1. And those adjustments start with Anthony Davis, who was set to take over the world this season, but has since suffered injuries, a shooting crisis and now a poor start to his playoff run.
“There’s no way to win a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way I played,” Davis said after Game 1. “So, I mean, it’s on. me. I take full responsibility. “
Davis scored just 13 points in the Lakers’ 99-90 loss in Game 1 and shot 31 percent from the field (5 for 16), a career low in the playoffs. Meanwhile, his Suns counterpart Deandre Ayton led with 21 points and 16 rebounds.
Davis bounced back from poor playoff performances before: The worst shooting night of his playoff career came in Game 1 loss to Portland in the playoffs, after which he averaged 30 of 66 points % shooting for the rest of the series. But he also needs to be in the best position to be successful, and for Davis and the Lakers that position is central.
This is not a new point of tension, as Davis has long preferred to play as a nominal 4 next to a traditional cross. And the team doubled down on that approach in building their roster, adding Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell to their big-man rotation to replace Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
Still, in the most important moments, Davis is in the 5, giving the Lakers maximum offensive spacing and defensive cover. In the 2019-20 playoffs and the 2020-2021 regular season, the Lakers were considerably more dominant with Davis as the only big one. (All alignment and position data is taken from Glass cleaning.)
Lakers ‘net score by Anthony Davis’ position
|Time limit||Davis at 4||Davis at 5||Proportion with Davis at 5|
|Time limit||Davis at 4||Davis at 5||Proportion with Davis at 5|
|Regular season 2019-2020||+5,2||+5,8||40%|
|Regular season 2020-21||+4,9||+16,9||dix%|
As this graph shows, the Lakers have used Davis in the 5th for more than half of his playoff minutes, but barely have this year. It’s good for the regular season, but the playoffs require more urgency, especially after a loss in Game 1.
The starting unity of the Lakers with Davis in 4 and Drummond in 5 is particularly brutal: in the regular season, the rosters with these two together were outclassed by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. Take that number with a grain of salt because LeBron missed most of those minutes – but that’s certainly not an encouraging sign.
Getting Davis up to 5th, as coach Frank Vogel did in the last playoffs, would help the Lakers on both sides of the field. In defense, Davis is much better suited to corral the Suns’ staggered screens for Devin Booker that troubled the Lakers so much in Game 1. And on offense, Davis has been a much more effective scorer at 5 in both seasons as a Laker. This is because as a center he shoots from better places on the floor.
Playing alongside Drummond forces Davis to step away from the rim, where he’s a phenomenal finisher, and move into the less productive midrange areas. And the Suns are clearly focused on exploiting Drummond’s lack of spacing to neutralize Davis’ athletic advantages. Watch the moments of Davis’ exit in three representative shots when Drummond was in the game – and notice all of those bodies in the painting, preventing Davis even from approaching the basket.
Conversely, Davis collected two dunks with Drummond out of play, with more room to maneuver around the rim.
To be fair, Davis always struggled when Drummond came off the floor in Game 1, when Ayton was playing the best and most important game of his young career. Davis only shot 2 for 9 with Ayton as the main defenseman, per Second Spectrum. But over a larger sample, Davis’ punch distribution pattern is clear, and scoring against someone, even Ayton’s size, shouldn’t be a problem for him. Defensive game data can be erratic, but in the last playoffs Davis was more effective when shooting crosses than forwards.
On that list, Davis must score in clusters. Beyond Davis and LeBron, no Laker has averaged more than 10.7 points per playoff game en route to last year’s title. While Drummond, Harrell, and fellow rookie Dennis Schröder offer theoretical scoring improvements, they’re not even guaranteed to be on the floor in the most important moments. And the Suns don’t seem concerned about Los Angeles’ fragile collection of perimeter shooters, who average the second-worst 3-point percentage of the regular season among playoff teams. (Only wizards were worse.)
Davis’ production is especially important given LeBron’s questionable health. The reigning Finals MVP has missed 26 of the Lakers’ last 30 regular season games with a severe ankle sprain and, aside from a fiery closing streak in the play-in game, does hasn’t looked like since returning. James was unusually shy in Game 1, taking 54% of his 3-pointers – the second-highest proportion in any of the 261 playoff games he has played in his career. This shooting board appears to belong to Cam Johnson, not LeBron James.
The two green circles in the painting came on a recoil and a quick pause; in other words, LeBron didn’t get any baskets near the rim of a regular half-court set. In the absence of his typical explosiveness, he didn’t score any points on records in Game 1, per Second Spectrum – the first time he’s been ruled out in a playoff game since 2017.
LeBron could well fight for long playoffs or even test his ankle after so much time away. But he’s not 100% and the Suns are good enough that the Lakers don’t have much more room for error.
Playing Davis at 5 seems like an obvious adjustment. But if the Lakers commit to pairing Davis with another greats, they should look to Gasol, the former starter, instead of Drummond, the current one. LeBron and Davis have thrived with Gasol when they are healthy, with the line recording over 13.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. But Gasol has fallen out of the rotation, with DNP-CD in four of the Lakers’ last five games.
The Davis-Drummond front line is not working. Consider the Lakers’ narrow victory over the Warriors. Drummond played the first 6:44 of the third quarter, left the Lakers behind by nine, and never came back, while Harrell never came in at all. With Davis playing exclusively as the only big, the Lakers outscored Golden State by 12 points in the final 17 minutes and on change.
As the first-round series against Phoenix approached, Davis’ inadequacy in particular seemed to weigh on the minds of many pundits as the Lakers were selected to cause technical turmoil, especially after torching the Suns for 42 points with LeBron injured in a win earlier this month. (The ring‘s Odds Machine, which does not take into account individual positional matches, calculated the Suns as favorites before Game 1.)
There is still time for Davis to meet those expectations – and the broader expectations, of LeBron and others, that he would step forward this season as a full offensive player after his hot shot in the bubble. A single night is no reason to disregard any previous belief in one’s abilities. But add in the surrounding context the neglected talent of the Suns, the uncertain supporting cast of the Lakers and the injury of LeBron, and there is legitimate pressure on Davis to take on more responsibility. Otherwise, LeBron is in real danger of losing in the first round for the first time in his career.