In three early-season matchups, the championship-minded Suns have had no answers for James and the Lakers.
The Lakers eliminated the Suns from the in-season tournament Tuesday, and in doing so recorded their third straight win against Phoenix this year. While all the games have been close in the fourth quarter, a common concern has emerged for the Suns across all three games, particularly in crunch time. And that concern conveniently has a name: LeBron James.
I know, you’re not here for the breaking news that James is good at basketball and a problem for opponents. Did you know he’s also 38 years old and in his 21st season? What’s interesting, though, is not only that James is succeeding against Phoenix, but how he’s been so successful. And that could be a serious issue for the Suns if these teams meet in a playoff series, as both squads obviously have designs on a championship.
To put it simply: LeBron is getting to the rim too easily vs. Phoenix. In the teams’ three matchups, James is averaging 28.0 points per game on 53.6% shooting. More important, 33 of his 56 field goal attempts have come in the paint. As a result, he’s attempting 8.3 free throws per contest. Compare that to his regular-season averages overall—24.7 points, 9.2 attempts in the paint and 5.7 free throws per game—and you can see there’s a small but clear uptick in when James is playing the Suns.
James poured in 31 points with 11 assists and five steals in Tuesday’s 106–103 win over the Suns.
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The Suns have two issues when it comes to James: Their primary options to defend him and their center rotation. Phoenix doesn’t have great options to pick up LeBron to begin with. On Tuesday, Eric Gordon drew the James assignment for much of the fourth with Kevin Durant in foul trouble, and while Gordon is a wily vet, he was outmatched against the 6'9" James. From there, James was still able to hunt switches onto Grayson Allen and, more important, call up Phoenix’s bigs in the pick-and-roll.
Jusuf Nurkić has been targeted frequently by James in the three games between the Lakers and Suns. Whether it’s drop coverage or a switch, that matchup has made James look more like 28 than 38, as he can either get into the paint at will or collapse the defense and find shooters. Nurkić’s backup, Drew Eubanks, can’t offer much more resistance. The Suns could give Durant a look at the five, but that creates other issues, especially with Anthony Davis on the floor.
Phoenix has had injury issues this year and hasn’t played Los Angeles with its full complement of stars. And the games have been close enough that a couple of shots have swung the outcome. Still, even if you dropped Bradley Beal into the game Tuesday night, it wouldn’t have fixed the Suns’ defensive problems when it comes to James.
It’s possible when the Suns are fully healthy, they will have enough firepower in a potential matchup with the Lakers that their defense won’t matter quite as much as it did in these close games. And, of course, with all the talent in the West, there’s no guarantee these teams will have to go through each other in the playoffs. But two of the questions raised by Phoenix’s offseason maneuvering were how they would defend wing stars and what impact going from Deandre Ayton to Nurkić would have on the defense. There’s a long way to go before we get definitive answers there. For now, though, those moves seem to have Phoenix in a bind when it comes to dealing with LeBron.