Last night the Lakers took a 2-1 lead over the Suns after AD went for 34-11, LeBron went for 21, 9 assists and 6 rebounds, and Dennis Schroder went for 20 on an efficient 6-11 shooting. Each of the Lakers’ top three offensive options had their own moments where they took over: AD and LeBron in the third quarter, and Schroder towards the end of the game after the Lakers started getting careless and Cam Payne sank three threes in a row to draw the Suns within 8.
The more impressive fact is that AD hurt his knee in the second quarter and iced it all through halftime, and was visibly limping for a bit in the third quarter, but remained in the game and scored 9 straight points on his his own to turn the game into a blowout. Schroder also tweaked his ankle at one point in the game but was able to fight through it and get buckets.
All told, AD, LeBron and Schroder combined for 75 of the Lakers’ 109 points. The Lakers now look to be in control of this series, and they get two days off before taking the floor in Staples again for game 4 on Sunday, where they will have a chance to go up 3-1.
The Lakers are clearly the better team in this series, at least in a general sense. They of course had a worse record in the regular season, but that was due to injuries. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis–the two best players in the series–and they have tremendous depth, and of course they’re the reigning NBA champions. There’s a reason the Lakers were heavy favorites to win this series before it started despite being the #7 seed.
But the Lakers have also benefitted greatly from Chris Paul’s shoulder injury, which has turned the Suns into a team that does not have much hope of competing with these Lakers. DeAndre Ayton is still doing well in the paint (22 and 11 on 11-15 shooting) but Devin Booker looks like a non-factor, going just 6-19 for 19 points. Credit the Lakers’ strong defense for making adjustments after Booker went for 34 in game 1, but it’s tough to deny Chris Paul’s injury has really made life difficult for Devin Booker. Devin Booker has been a great young player for about 5 seasons now, but in the four seasons prior to 2021 (i.e. prior to getting Chris Paul), the Suns had a combined record of 98-221. Chris Paul has clearly taken this team to another level and elevated everyone.
It increasingly looks like, yes, game 1 was indeed another “feel-out” game for LeBron, and possibly even him playing mind games on the Suns and giving them false confidence, with the goal of promptly crushing it in the ensuing games. You can see the result of that in how obviously tilted the Suns were by the end of game 3; Devin Booker got ejected for shoving Dennis Schroder to the ground on a drive, Jae Crowder eventually got ejected shortly after because he couldn’t hold back from chirping at Schroder. And LeBron was in Jae Crowder’s head all night; we saw that little-back-and-forth when Crowder was trying to get all up in LeBron’s shit and LeBron took him to the rim in iso, with the Lakers’ bench absolutely losing their minds in the background.
Not only did the Lakers win the game in blowout fashion and take a 2-1 series lead, but now Devin Booker has a flagrant 2 on his record for these playoffs, and if he commits another flagrant foul, it’s an automatic one-game suspension. The Lakers must now know they own the Suns mentally. The Suns’ young players were clearly not ready for the different type of game playoff basketball is. The defensive intensity of the playoffs benefits a team like the Lakers (top-rated defense in the regular season).
The Lakers still need to win two more games, but it just feels like they’ve taken control of the series and have figured the Suns out.
However, LeBron hasn’t been producing the big scoring numbers we’re used to seeing out of him in the playoffs. He had 18 points in game 1, 23 in game 2, and 21 last night. He had just 22 points in the play-in game against Golden State. This is a guy who averages 28.7ppg in the playoffs for his career. He averaged 27.5ppg in last year’s playoffs, including 29.8ppg in the 2020 Finals against Miami.
Even in this year’s regular season, he averaged 25ppg in 45 games. In the March 18 games before he got injured, he went for 37. The very next game two days later against Atlanta, he got hurt 10 minutes in and didn’t play again until April 30, where he came back and played two straight games before re-aggravating the injury and missing the next six games. He came back and played the final two regular season games, scoring 24 and then 25 points to close the season out.
It’s not like he suddenly got old and can’t score. Yes, he’s “old” by NBA standards at 36, and he’s not scoring quite as much as he used to when he was in his peak athletic prime, but even for the current version of LeBron, he’s not scoring as much as he was in the regular season, specifically pre-injury. Why?
Part of it has to do with that lingering ankle injury he sustained in the regular season and which caused him to miss 27 games. He really only came back in time for the playoffs, which means he’s been playing not because he’s fully healthy, but because he has to play. I mean, this should be obvious to everyone: he averaged 25 points a game in the regular season before the injury, and now we’re seeing him less aggressive–at times passive–and he hasn’t had one 25 point game in four tries this post-season.
But it’s not like he’s completely hobbled. We’ve seen him throw down some dunks in these playoffs. We’ve seen him get aggressive and look like vintage LeBron during short bursts. And he certainly looked healthy when he was toying with Jae Crowder and went up-and-under for the reverse finish last night.
So if he’s hurt, he’s not that hurt. There’s got to be more to it.
The thing about LeBron is that he’s not a score-first player. For most of his career, he’s been more of a distributor who can and very often does light it up. Really the only time he was primarily about scoring was his first stint in Cleveland when he was like age 18-25 and jumping out of the gym, and had zero supporting cast.
Once he went to Miami, he became more of a distributor/floor general, and actually to a fault: his passivity and unwillingness to be an alpha was the reason the Heat blew the 2011 Finals to Dallas. Since that infamous series, he’s been able to consistently flip the switch between scorer and distributor, and that play style resulted in him winning four rings.
You saw in his second stint in Cleveland when he had Kyrie and Kevin Love, he was happy to distribute and score 26-28 points per game, with the occasional 40+ point outburst when needed. But then when Kyrie left and it was all on him in 2018, he averaged 34 points a game in that incredible playoff run.
He has a remarkable knack of knowing just how much scoring his team needs from him. He’s not gonna go for 40 every night just because he wants to get his. He just gets as many points as his team needs him to get.
LeBron always knows the moment. He knows if/when he has to take over and be aggressive (i.e. selfish). You saw it in the third quarter last night when he was attacking the rim seemingly every possession. There are moments when he tells his teammates, “Clear out, I’m taking over.”
But there are other moments when he just wants to set guys up for buckets and get them going.
His mission since AD’s arrival has been to turn him into an absolute monster who is able to consistently dominate playoff games. LeBron wants AD to be the primary scorer on that team while he, LeBron, is the floor general and distributor. At this stage of his career, LeBron would rather have AD going for 35 than himself going for 35. Because LeBron knows he can get 35 if he wants. But in order for the Lakers to win a championship, they need AD to be playing at the peak of his powers, so that when the time comes, LeBron and AD can each go for 35 and carry their team to a tough win against a team like Brooklyn or Utah or Milwaukee or Philly.
The Lakers will not win another ring unless AD is the team’s primary scorer. So in my opinion, that’s LeBron’s goal right now: get AD going and turn him into a juggernaut.
In the first half of yesterday’s game, you could see LeBron just wasn’t “using” that many possessions–“using” in the sense of the “usage percentage” stat, which tells you how many of a team’s possessions a player “uses” while he’s on the floor, i.e. field goal attempts, free throw attempts and turnovers.
He was deferring. He was passing and trying to set guys up. My buddy bet on LeBron to score over 25 points in last night’s game, and he was constantly yelling at the TV, “Shoot it! No, don’t pass!”
But remember: AD was not good in game 1. He only had 13 points and was inefficient from the floor. So in game 2, LeBron knew he had to help AD get his mojo going again. And he made sure AD continued his dominance into game 3 last night as well.
I think there are multiple reasons LeBron isn’t scoring as much as we’re used to seeing him score. A bit of it has to do with the injury; he’s not 100% and doesn’t have his full offensive repertoire available to him right now. Another part of it is him being 36 and having to pick and choose his moments more.
But to me, the biggest part of it is that he’s trying to get his guys going, specifically AD, but really the whole Lakers team. This is not the same Lakers team as last season. There are a lot of new faces out there: Schroder, Drummond, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, Trezz, although Trezz doesn’t really play much anymore. Because of LeBron and AD’s injuries, these guys really haven’t played many games together. They still need time to gel and develop chemistry. I mean, Drummond and AD only played 13 games together before the post-season started, and Drummond and LeBron only played 4 total games together prior to the play-in.
LeBron wants to get his guys’ confidence up. He wants to set them up to knock down shots and start getting into a rhythm. I expect him to keep playing like this, too. Even though the Lakers have won two straight games and are up 2-1 in the series, they have been horrendous from three. Last night they were 7-28, in game 2 they were 10-33, and in game 1 they were 7-26. That’s 24-87, or 27% from three for the series. If you take away LeBron’s three point shooting (3-7 in g1, 4-9 in g2, 1-5 last night for 8-21 total or 38%), it’s even worse–24% from three.
They need to get their three point shooting back on track. There is still a ton of room for improvement for the Laker role players in this series. Kyle Kuzma, although he defintiely contributed with hustle plays, was just 2-12 from the field last night. KCP has clearly lost confidence in his shot. Alex Caruso still has yet to really find his groove. So I expect LeBron to keep passing and distributing in an effort to get his guys going.
I have no doubt we will see several Vintage LeBron™ games–38pts on 50%+ shooting, 10 assists and 9 rebounds–over the course of this postseason. He’ll have those games when he needs to.
But right now, with the ankle not 100% and with an NBA record 10,924 career playoff minutes–1,000 more than the 2nd place guy, Tim Duncan–plus 50,000 regular season minutes, good for 6th all-time, they’re not going to be as common as they once were.