2021 NBA first-round playoff previews: (2) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

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The Western Conference’s second-seeded Phoenix Suns and seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. L.A. beat the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament.

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How they got here

Phoenix Suns

Riding an 8-0 record in last year's bubble that left them just shy of their first playoff appearance in a decade, the Suns made a win-now trade for 36-year-old perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul. His pairing with his old coach, Monty Williams, at the helm of an up-and-coming young roster was better than anyone in Phoenix could have hoped for. The Suns hit the ground running and never stepped off the gas.

All-Star guard Devin Booker did what Devin Booker does and got buckets. In his third season since being drafted No. 1 overall, Deandre Ayton continued his ascent as a two-way presence in the paint. Mikal Bridges emerged as the ultimate three-and-D wing. Jae Crowder brought toughness and playoff experience.

The additions of Paul and Crowder also pushed Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson down the depth chart, where they bolstered an effective bench unit that also features veterans Dario Saric and Torrey Craig. The pieces fit seamlessly, generating a top-seven offense and defense that netted the NBA's third-best rating.

Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James got them here with a blinded buzzer-beating 34-foot 3-pointer for the ages.

Anthony Davis' Achilles pain and James' ensuing high ankle sprain left the Lakers reeling by comparison to their 2020 title run and a 21-6 start to this season. They plummeted from the top of the Western Conference standings into pole position in the play-in tournament, and they would have fallen further were it not for a defense that managed to finish with the league's top net rating (106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Considering the entire roster was built to complement James and Davis, it is a credit to coach Frank Vogel that the Lakers carried themselves as defending champions without the only two players who really matter. It, of course, helps that the supporting cast includes 2020's top two Sixth Man of the Year candidates (Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell), a former Defensive Player of the Year (Marc Gasol), a two-time All-Star center (Andre Drummond) and a cast of wings who know what it takes to win on the highest level.

The avoidance of a complete collapse in the second half of the season afforded the Lakers the luxury of maximizing recovery for James and Davis. All it took was two quarters for both to shake off the rust and emerge playoff ready in a play-in game with real stakes against a red-hot Stephen Curry and his Warriors.

LeBron James and Chris Paul will meet in the playoffs for the first time. (Harry How/Getty Images)
LeBron James and Chris Paul will meet in the playoffs for the first time. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Head to head

The Suns won their season series with the Lakers, 2-1.

Don't read too much into it, given that Davis missed the first meeting, James missed the third and neither played in the second. The Suns were among the healthiest teams in the league and did score 114.3 points per 100 possessions against the Lakers' defense, but the lasting taste of their season series was 42 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals from Davis in a 123-110 victory without James.

For the record, in his lone game against the Suns this season, James dropped a 38-5-6 on 67% shooting. 

Closing lineups

Phoenix Suns

The Suns will close games with Paul, Booker, Bridges, Ayton and either Crowder or Johnson. Johnson was twice as productive as Crowder with the core four in a significantly smaller (but not inconsequential) sample size that yielded a +10.1-point advantage per 100 possessions this season. It seems only natural Williams would trust Crowder's playoff experience, but Phoenix's youth has defied conventional wisdom all year.

Los Angeles Lakers

Vogel abandoned Schroder — the team's leader in clutch minutes this season — in favor of Wes Matthews' defense alongside James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso down the stretch of their play-in game, and it paid off. That lineup did not play a single possession together in the regular season.

Because of injuries, the Lakers have gotten everyone on the roster late minutes in close games this season. Caldwell-Pope has been a constant. It really will be plug-and-play around James, Davis and Caldwell-Pope based on feel, and lineups boasting that trio have outdone opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions.

Matchup to watch

Who can guard LeBron James is a question the NBA has been trying to answer for going on two decades now, but the Suns have in Bridges and Crowder a pair of wing defenders to at least try to limit the legend. We would also be remiss if we did not mention the indirect matchup of James and Paul, the two longtime friends who have played 369 combined playoff games over the years and never faced each other once.

But who the hell guards Anthony Davis? There is no correct answer. Bridges, Crowder and Craig are giving up size in the post against the Lakers' bigger lineups, and Davis can work Ayton from the perimeter as a "small"-ball center. Saric, Frank Kaminsky or rookie Jalen Smith aren't going to be much help off the bench.

BetMGM series odds

Suns (+120)

Lakers (-145)

Prediction

Lakers in six.

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