It certainly wasn't pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers are right back where they wanted to be after a 109-95 Game 3 victory over the Phoenix Suns. With a 2-1 series lead and another game at Staples Center looming between these two teams on Sunday, the defending champions have given themselves a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead. In fact, the Lakers are hoping that history can repeat itself the rest of the way. In the first two rounds last season, the Lakers lost Game 1 before sweeping their opponents the rest of the way.
If Anthony Davis keeps this up, the Lakers will have little trouble doing so again this time around. He led the Lakers with 34 points and 11 rebounds in this one while LeBron James, who got off to a slow start, picked things up with 16 second-half points to go along with nine total assists. Those numbers hardly stand up to James' typical postseason excellence, but in a physical, defensive-oriented game like this, it was all the Lakers needed to secure the victory. Here are the biggest takeaways from their Game 3 victory.
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The Lakers turn back the clock
The second quarter of this game featured a total of 28 points. By comparison, the final 43 seconds of Thursday's Nuggets-Blazers Game 3 featured 75 percent as many as they combined for 21 points in that timeframe. Yes, there was great defense involved there, but it went deeper than that. The playing style was straight out of the '90s. Andre Drummond post-ups. Turnaround mid-range jumpers early in the shot clock. Nobody could generate any good shots, and when they did, they just missed.
This is a symptom of playoff basketball. The game slows down. It gets ugly. And that's just how the Lakers like it. When the going got tough, they were able to pound the ball inside and bludgeon their way into just enough offense to win the game. They scored 58 points in the paint and another 26 at the free-throw line. The Suns, with Chris Paul clearly hampered, just couldn't manufacture points in the same way.
It's an old-school style of basketball, but it's one that the Lakers play eagerly. Remember, they signed Andre Drummond in the middle of the season largely because they were dissatisfied with Marc Gasol, a perimeter-oriented big, and Montrezl Harrell, who is only 6-8. They wanted to be able to play physical games like this. They won plenty of them last season with Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee at center, and they followed that same road map again in Game 3.
A Payne-ful choice
Three times in a row the Suns have, either directly or through the actions, claimed that Chris Paul was healthy enough to play. He returned to Game 1 quickly after his shoulder injury. He started Game 2, and he was again in the starting five for Game 3 after Suns coach Monty Williams called him a "full go" before the game. Well, not quite full. Paul played 27 minutes in Game 3. He was down to under 23 in Game 2 after averaging over 31 during the season. It's not as though these minutes are going well, either.
The Suns lost this game by 14 points, but they were outscored by 20 with Paul in the game. He had the worst plus-minus on the Suns, but his backup, Cameron Payne, nearly singlehandedly made this game competitive in the fourth quarter after a barrage of 3-pointers. He gave the Suns 19 points and seven assists in Game 2, but perhaps more importantly, the Suns won his minutes by three points in that game and played the Lakers to a draw in Game 3 with Payne on the floor.
It would be blasphemous under normal circumstances to suggest that Paul shouldn't start. He's a Hall of Famer who is going to earn All-NBA honors this season. But the Suns can't keep pretending that he's healthy when he isn't. For large stretches of this series it has felt as though they were playing 4-on-5 offensively. Payne is no star. He'll never be what a healthy Paul is, and the downgrade there puts the Suns at a serious disadvantage. But he's healthy. The Suns can rely on him successfully executing a game plan at the very least. The same might not be true of Paul, who is struggling get shots up and make cross-court passes. It's a move Phoenix should at least consider for Game 4.
Will the Lakers' role players ever start making their shots?
Role players shoot better at home. That's ancient NBA wisdom, and it's something lower seeds rely upon after starting playoff series on the road. Well, let's check in on how the Lakers' role players shot from the field in Phoenix:
- Kyle Kuzma: 1 of 6
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 2 of 13
- Wesley Matthews: 1 of 6
Matthews righted the ship to an extent in Game 3, going 2 of 5 from the field at home, but making both of his shots from behind the arc. Caldwell-Pope didn't hit a 3, and Kuzma shot 2 of 12 on Thursday, adding to an abysmal offensive series for him.
All three players have other virtues. They've each played strong defense, and Kuzma's rebounding and passing have been essential for the Lakers in this series and this season as a whole. The Lakers can live with any of them missing shots. They just can't live with all of them missing shots. Through three games, the Lakers are shooting only 27.5 percent on 3-pointers in this series. They've gotten by because of Paul's injury and their interior dominance, but that simply will not do against Brooklyn or Milwaukee. The Lakers can't win the championship without making their 3s. Their shooters turned things around last postseason. So far this season, they've barely been able to hit the broad side of a barn.