Why there should be no concern about the Lakers' title chances

If you needed a sign that the Los Angeles Lakers are going to be fine when the playoffs arrive, look no further than their huge win against the Phoenix Suns.

With the Lakers situated 7th in the West, the odds are they will most likely face these same Suns in the first round of the playoffs, a prospect that should worry Suns fans everywhere. The Lakers will probably have to get through another game in the play-in tournament, but such a scenario would favor them immensely, considering they would be facing a Golden State Warriors team that lives and dies by Stephen Curry – and, quite frankly, mostly dies with everyone else.

Truth be told, seeding did not really matter to these Lakers. The plan was to always survive this coronavirus-plagued regular season that has been further made difficult by injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But no one expected the Lakers to fall as low as the 7th seed, not even prognosticators who expected them to suffer a slight dip in the standings.

Nevertheless, the premise still stands: these Lakers are going to be a hard out for every team in the West, especially with James showing signs of returning soon, as well as Davis warming back up to his All-NBA levels of play.

Coupled with their defensive consistency, the Lakers might very well become the most dangerous 7th seed in NBA playoffs history – and, if the chips fall their way and the injury bug finally gets squashed, could become the first 7th seed in history to win it all.

Defensive consistency

Consider the various ailments the Lakers roster has suffered throughout this season: health and safety protocols, injuries to their two stars, and lineup combinations that have been thrown out there to compensate for such roster deficiencies.

Such inconsistencies are often enough to cripple most teams in the league, but not the Lakers. Sure, they didn't come out of this unscathed – as evidenced by them being much lower than expected in the standings. 

But being 7th in the West is something the Lakers will take over being deeper in the play-in doldrums – or even worse, being out of the playoff picture altogether. The thin thread that has held them together throughout those difficulties is more akin to a huge brick wall, one that was built last year when head coach Frank Vogel was brought in.

Establishing a defensive culture is perhaps the most difficult endeavor an NBA coach can undertake, but Vogel is arguably the one most capable of doing so without a hitch. That was proven last year, when he was able to convince James and Davis to buy in to his philosophy of hard-nosed, blue-collar defense.

When your biggest stars are fully committed to defending their butts off, the effect trickles down – from key role players all the way to the last man on the bench.

That's the Lakers getting a steal off of Chris Paul, one of the most reliable floor generals in the history of the NBA. With Paul handling the ball in screen-and-roll action, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope intercepts the skip pass by staying put in the passing lane. 

But it all started with the on-ball defense – Alex Caruso fighting over the screen and trailing Paul, and Andre Drummond containing the drive while keeping tabs on the rolling DeAndre Ayton, which put Paul between a rock and a hard place.

The Lakers have that uncanny ability to force elite players out of character. They forced Paul to cough up 5 turnovers, which was more than his average of 2.2 per game. In a battle where one team is typically turnover averse (the Suns are 4th in turnover percentage) and the other has a knack for forcing a lot of them (the Lakers are 4th in opponent turnover percentage), the Lakers won the battle, forcing the Suns to turn the ball over 15 times.

The Suns were unusually hurried out of their preferred slow pace in the halfcourt by a hounding defense that seemed to have multiple appendages. Any holes that were momentarily created were closed within seconds.

Caruso comes over to double Devin Booker, starting the rotational sequence: Booker swings to Paul; Montrezl Harrell comes over to close out on Paul; Paul swings to Torrey Craig in the corner; Caldwell-Pope comes all the way from the weak-side corner to rotate and close out on Craig, with Davis and the previous double-team tandem plugging the holes created on the weak side, eventually forcing a turnover.

The Lakers defend as if they were held together by a string. When one man gets pulled toward a certain direction, another seems to come out of nowhere, pulled by an invisible thread toward the direction the previous player had vacated.

The string pulls them with just the right amount of tug to provide help to where it is needed. Once that help has run its course, they get pulled back to where they need to contain and contest.

Vogel is the puppeteer, but the string he has held this defense together with is comfortably within the control of his personnel; such is the amount of faith he has in his players to execute his scheme, and such is the trust the players have put in him that they are willing to make it a huge part of their collective identity.

Despite the difficulties – the injuries, the virus, and the constant shuffling of players in and out of the rotation – the Lakers defense remains the gold standard: 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, the stingiest in the league.

A significant chunk of the season was spent maintaining the Lakers' defensive identity without the services of James and Davis. With Davis returning to form, the Lakers defense – already solid as it is – could once again become the monstrosity that gobbled up the league last season.

Anthony Davis returning to form

Speaking of monstrosity, get a load of this sequence from Davis:

That is Davis – in typical Anthony Davis fashion – impacting the game on both ends of the floor. His close-out speed, coupled with his length, stifles Jae Crowder's corner three attempt. He runs the floor and manages to get position deep under the basket for an alley-oop dunk.

That sight is terrifying.

Continuing the theme of defensive consistency, Davis – a perennial presence on NBA All-Defensive teams and a name consistently mentioned on Defensive Player of the Year lists – may have returned in time to bolster a Lakers team that will need to lean heavily on its defense to capture another title.

It took Davis a couple of games to get reacclimated to the pace and flow of a full-speed game, but it seems like he completely has his bearings back. On defense, he has returned to the versatility that has become his calling card.

Protecting the rim continues to be his most eye-popping ability.

But even the threat of Davis blocking a shot is enough for defenses to panic and change course. Plan As become hastily conceived Plan Bs, all because Davis is there to put a wrench into what offenses are trying to achieve.

Booker certainly had plans of taking it all the way to the hole for the layup, but once Davis steps into the picture, Booker gets cold feet and passes out of the attempt mid-air, only to turn it over. Such is the impact of Davis as an intimidator, even without notching a single statistic – a block or a steal – in that particular possession.

The versatility Davis has on defense notably extends to his offense, as well. Davis torched the Suns to the tune of 42 points on 13-of-27 shooting from the field and 15-of-17 shooting from the free throw line, with a true shooting percentage of 61%.

The Suns had no answer for Davis' presence as an offensive juggernaut. They tried to throw several looks at him: 2-3 zones and different defender matchups.

The Suns threw everything but the kitchen sink at Davis – Craig, Dario Šarić, Frank Kaminsky, and Ayton – but Davis blew by them without much effort. His array of offensive moves in the low post befuddled the Suns' bigs, while also using his ability to hit jumpers in the mid-range and as far back as the three-point line to stretch them out to a place where they aren't accustomed to defend.

Davis' physicality in the paint will make him a tough matchup for anyone in the league, especially for this Suns team. The prospect of facing Davis in a seven-game series isn't one the Suns are looking forward to, especially with Davis regaining his legs under him.

"I'm getting my legs back," Davis said after the game. "My legs aren't as heavy during the game and as the game went on. I'm taking free throws, I'm pushing the ball further, [shooting] jump shots. My legs feel good."

That is an extremely uplifting sign for the Lakers and their fans everywhere – and a concerning one for everyone else who was hoping for a free fall that would have blown the title race wide open.

There is still one missing piece of the puzzle, however, and that is the most glaring one. The return of James to the lineup is paramount, considering how effective his partnership with Davis has been on both ends of the floor. The James and Davis duo has played a total of 554 minutes together, outscoring opponents by a whopping 11.6 points per 100 possessions, including a defensive rating of 104.7 – nearly 2 points per 100 possessions stingier than their current league-best efficiency.

Once James returns (and also Dennis Schröder, who is out due to health and safety protocols), the Lakers will have their full arsenal locked and loaded for a title run.

They will have the luxury of tinkering lineups according to certain matchups, including having more leeway solving the Drummond-or-Marc-Gasol-at-the-center-spot conundrum (spoiler alert: Davis at the 5 is still the answer), and will finally get their two best players on the floor at the same time.

The Lakers have faltered more than usual this season, arguably due to circumstances beyond their control. But control is returning to them at a pivotal juncture of the season. The defending champs are nearly at the gates,and they're not about to let go of the crown that easily. – Rappler.com