The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers appear to be heading in opposite directions during their first-round playoff series.
Phoenix point guard Chris Paul injured his right shoulder during the first half of Game 1, and was clearly limited in Games 2 and 3 of the series, both losses for the Suns.
Now, Paul is looking and feeling better as he completed his best game of the series in Game 4, scoring 18 points and dishing out nine assists in a 100-92 victory over the Lakers.
Originally, it was the reigning World Champion Lakers that appeared to be getting healthy at the perfect time entering the series. LeBron James returned from a high-ankle sprain for the final two games of the regular season and the play-in tournament win over the Warriors.
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Prior to that, Anthony Davis returned from missing 10 weeks with a right calf injury. James and Davis are the engine that drives the Lakers on the court, and the superstar duo proved that in Games 2 and 3, combining for a total of 112 points in the two victories.
However, things in the NBA can often turn on a dime, especially in a seven-game playoff series. The Lakers and Suns are a perfect example of that.
Entering the series, the lower-seeded Lakers were the betting favorites to win and advance to the second round. Only ten teams in NBA history have ever defeated a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the first round, and the No. 7 seeded Lakers were expected to become the 11th, making the Suns-Lakers one of the most intriguing series of the entire playoffs.
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After a convincing win for the Suns in the the first game of the series many oddsmakers made Phoenix the favorites to advance. The Lakers looked lost on the court together, struggled from the perimeter, and lacked cohesion for obvious reasons.
Davis scored only 13 points in the Game 1 loss and took it upon himself to dominate in Game 2. He had 34 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists in that game, and 34 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3. With Davis' dominance, the odds and the series shifted back towards Los Angeles.
Then Davis got injured in the second quarter of Game 4, collapsing to the ground grabbing his left groin after a missed layup attempt. Davis was unable to continue in the game, and with his absence, a once 11-point Laker lead turned into an 18-point deficit in the second half.
Davis underwent an MRI on Sunday that confirmed a left groin strain. Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel said on Monday after practice that Davis could still play in Game 5, and would be listed as "day to day."
But according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Davis is unlikely to play in Game 5.
"It’s next man up, and obviously if [Davis] is not ready for Game 5, it’s going to be a tough boat for our ballclub, but it’s next man up, and we’re going to have to be that way in a hostile environment," said James.
Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel was reminded of the times his old Indiana Pacers teams would square off with James and the Miami Heat. Often times one member of the "Big Three" that featured James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, would be out, and James would still find a way to will his team to victory. Vogel said James might have to do it again for the Lakers on Tuesday in Game 5.
"When I competed against the Miami Heat, and either Wade or Bosh was out, there was more touches for LeBron and that wasn't always necessarily a good thing for my Pacers teams," said Vogel. "It's just going to be more opportunity for LeBron and we're going to need everybody to step up."
The Lakers played 36 games with Davis during the regular season and were a pedestrian 19-17 without him. Both Vogel and James said they can draw upon those experiences if that is indeed the case in Game 5. Additionally, when the Lakers were without Davis, but still had James, the team was a slightly better 11-7 in those games.
Needless to say, the pressure in the series now shifts solely to the shoulders of James and the defending champions. The Suns are guaranteed that if there is a Game 7 in the series, it will be played on their home court. If they win two of the next three games, with the Lakers likely without their best player, they will advance to the second round.
“We just don’t take health for granted," said Suns' head coach Monty Williams after practice on Monday.
With the series tied at 2-2, Game 5 of the best of 7 matchup will be on Tuesday night at 7:00PM PT on TNT.