Newsletter: Lakers seeded seventh, but Suns are the underdogs

Forward Anthony Davis fouls Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the second of the play-in game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, this is Dan Woike, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter. I’m writing from the NBA’s weirdo purgatory, a time of year that’s definitely not the regular season but, from a technical standpoint, also not a part of the playoffs. But that’s about to be all over soon, the team heading to Phoenix this weekend to open the first round Sunday.

The Suns won more games. They are the higher seed and have homecourt advantage. They have the Coach of the Year candidate. They have the player most likely to end up getting Most Valuable Player votes.

And, they are the underdogs.

It’s a perfectly weird position to be in to start the playoffs at the end of an imperfectly weird regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers lurking like a monster under the bed for so many teams. And as a reward for finishing with the second best record, the Suns get to lift up the covers to discover the Lakers with a complete roster.

The Lakers are still trying to figure out who they are, continuity and chemistry ideally would’ve been built sooner. But the version that will play the Suns is still largely built on speculation, the team trying to find the right combinations and the right players for every situation.

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The Suns are a little easier to figure out, so we checked in with a Western Conference scout to get an early look at Phoenix and what to expect from the first round.

Chris Paul

Lakers guard Dennis Schroder tries to cover Phoenix guard Chris Paul as Dario Saric sets a screen.
Lakers guard Dennis Schroder tries to cover Phoenix guard Chris Paul as Dario Saric sets a screen.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It seems almost cruel that Paul is in this position, elevating another franchise on his quest for his NBA title while being faced with a steep challenge in the Lakers.

“Elite, elite point guard, big-time career,” the scout said. “But there are huge questions about playoff success and durability with him. He’s waited a long time to erase that and had some chances to erase it, but he hasn’t been able to get rid of it.”

Paul won’t beat the Lakers with his scoring – his game is elevating everyone else. But he’ll have the most pressure on him during the series.

“They had a great year, far exceeded expectations and he gets a ton of credit for that,” the scout said. “But he’ll get a ton of blame if it goes wrong.”

The Lakers will have some options on Paul – primarily Dennis Schroder. But the scout said the things Schroder does best on defense – pressure guards full court, “punking them,” those tricks won’t work against Paul.

“Schroder is a big component. What Schroder you have is also critical,” the scout said.


Devin Booker

Suns guard Devin Booker directs his teammates during a game against the Clippers.
Devin Booker
(Associated Press)

The biggest advantage the Suns might have in the series, Booker is a dead-eye scorer alongside Paul in the backcourt. But the Lakers defended Booker well in two of the teams’ three meetings this season.

“Booker has to be a monster,” the scout said. “If he lets (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guard him, they’re in trouble.”

When Booker’s hit better than 50% from the field, the Suns are 27-8 this season.

While the Suns will try and use their role players to create some advantages – maybe using Jae Crowder at power forward, creating spacing with players like Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric and empowering Cameron Payne – it mostly comes down to their guards.

“It’s truly a battle of styles,” the scout said. “Phoenix’s style is (Paul) and Booker, and that’s their advantage. The Lakers? It’s LeBron and AD, and Phoenix doesn’t have an answer for them.”

What the Lakers are saying

While the streamers were still on the Staples Center ground, the Lakers players and coaches took a quick look ahead Wednesday night to their next opponent.

For LeBron James, his first playoff series against Paul will be extra special.

“It’s going to be pretty cool just to be on the same floor and competing,” James said. “One of the most fierce competitors that this game has had over his career and I look forward to the matchup.”

And even though the Lakers are the early betting favorites, the Lakers were very respectful to their upcoming opponent despite not feeling like a typical No. 7 seed.

“They’re playing a high level of basketball right now. We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but we’ll have a plan in place,” Wesley Matthews said. “I’m very confident in that. We’ve been building confidence… We’re getting those winning habits, that winning mentality back. Guys are getting their legs up underneath them. We’re able to integrate all of the lineups and rotations and stuff in a real, live playoff game just now. And come out with a victory.

“So we’ll be ready. But by no means is it going to be easy.”

Song of the Week

Eddie Vedder – “Hard Sun”

Wesley Matthews knows it. So does Eddie Vedder.

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Until next time...

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