For the first time in recent memory, the lower-seeded Los Angeles Lakers opened their first-round series with the number two seeded Phoenix Suns as the overwhelming favorites. But the Lakers are not your typical seven seed.
The reigning NBA Champions were unhealthy for most of the regular season, but picked the perfect time to get back to full strength, winning six consecutive games entering Game 1 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs on Sunday.
The Lakers welcomed back Anthony Davis and LeBron James in recent weeks, both missing over a month with significant injuries. However, the biggest problem for the Lakers is they haven't had any time to develop chemistry with each other. Their starting lineup against the Warriors in the play-in tournament had only been on the court together a total of two times. That lack of chemistry showed in Game 1 on Sunday.
As the Lakers struggled both on offense, and transition defense, the Suns scorched them on the fast break, and took Game 1 of the series in impressive fashion, 99-90. Phoenix led by as many as 16 points, and the Lakers could not take advantage of a right-shoulder injury to Suns point guard Chris Paul.
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"Its been a challenging year, but our guys are intent on repeating as champions, defending our title, and we're up for the challenge," said Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel.
Paul went down early in the second quarter after running into his own teammate Cam Johnson. Paul went down to the ground grabbing his right shoulder and immediately went back to the locker room. He returned a few minutes later to a standing ovation and was diagnosed with a right-shoulder contusion.
"We knew the other team [Suns] was going to be on high alert when they lose a guy like Chris [Paul]," said Vogel of the injury and not being able to take advantage of his absence. "We always have to take advantage at spots within the game, but he was back before you knew it and we didn't give it much more thought."
Paul did not look the same for the remainder of the game, but the Lakers could not take advantage. Each and every time the Lakers cut the lead to single digits, the Suns would respond with a run of their own to go back up by 12 or more.
James also injured his left shoulder when he was undercut by Paul after a missed free throw and went sprawling to the ground. He received work by the training staff on his left shoulder as both teams tussled on the court. Four technical fouls were handed out, and Suns' guard Cam Payne was ejected.
Both Paul and James said they would be "ready to go" for Game 2 in the series on Tuesday.
Down the stretch, Devin Booker took over for the Suns. The 24-year-old All-Star, playing in his first playoff action, led all scorers with a game-high 34 points. The Lakers threw every defender they had at Booker—even double teams—but he remained confident and unstoppable on offense.
"He's a scoring machine," said Vogel of Booker. "He puts a lot of pressure on our defense. When we double-teamed him, he found Ayton on the glass. But if we hold them to 99 points again in Game 2, I feel good about our chances. We have to be better offensively. "
The Suns defense, ranked seventh in the league this season, held it's own, holding the Lakers to just 90 points. However, poor outside shooting, limited bench contributions, and awful transition defense didn't help the Lakers either. Los Angeles had 14 turnovers, and it took three quarters for Frank Vogel to finally adjust to the Suns fast break offense by putting in Alex Caruso, Wes Matthews, and moving Davis to the center position.
"We missed a ton of shots as a team," admitted Davis, who finished with only 13 points. "We missed 11 free throws, we missed layups, we gave up eight offensive rebounds to Ayton alone. We played good defensively, even though we gave them a ton of points as well, especially transition points. This one is on me, I take full responsibility for sure."
James led the Lakers with 18 points, and was 3-for-7 from beyond the arc. Unfortunately for L.A. James was the only player who could hit a three-pointer as the rest of the team was 4-for-19 from deep. Dennis Schröder had 14, and Montrezl Harrell and Alex Caruso combined for 22 off the bench.
"We had a ton of wide open looks for three," noted Davis. "Once we make shots, it will definitely open up the game more for me."
James likes to say that the first game of any seven-game playoff series is a "feel out game." The challenge now for the Lakers is how much they learned in this game and how they will adjust defensively. Hitting their wide-open three-pointers will help in Game 2 as well. One thing for certain is the Lakers won't panic or flinch, but with no seven-seed in NBA history ever winning the NBA Finals, the challenge ahead of the Lakers is daunting to say the least.
"Game one has always been a feel out game for me. I'm looking forward to breaking down the film tonight and then as a team tomorrow," said James. "We know how great of a team we're playing. We have to make shots. We did a hell of a job defensively. We held this team to 99 points, but we have to put the ball in the basket as well and tonight we didn't do that. We're ready for that challenge."