"I said, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be two minutes. I don’t know if it’ll be 32 minutes, but I feel like I’ve got to try to give you what I’ve got.’”— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) May 30, 2021
Not only did Paul play, but he thrived, leading the Suns to a Game 4 victory and sending the series back to Phoenix tied 2-2.
The Los Angeles Lakers dropped Game 4 of their best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns, 100-92. However, the game itself wasn't the biggest loss that Los Angeles experienced on Sunday afternoon as Anthony Davis was forced to miss the entire second half after suffering a strained left groin.
With Game 5 scheduled for Tuesday night, Davis will not have much time to recover from the injury which could be a big issue for the Lakers as the Suns dominated the third quarter and never looked back. Phoenix rode a balanced offensive effort to a comfortable victory at Staples Center as six players scored in double figures for the Suns in the end.
LeBron James did all that he could to get Los Angeles back into the game during the fourth quarter. He finished the loss with 25 points, 12 rebounds and six assists but just didn't have enough assistance from the Lakers' supporting cast in order to overcome the deficit. Should Davis not be able to go in Game 5, it could take a superhuman effort from James for Los Angeles to avoid falling into a 3-2 series deficit.
Here are three takeaways from the Suns' Game 4 win:
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1. Chris Paul is back
If you're looking for a single statistic that explains how much healthier Chris Paul looked against the Lakers in Game 4, it isn't his 18 points or his nine assists or even his plus-nine point-differential. No, it was the three 3-pointers that he attempted, all misses. From the moment Paul got injured in Game 1 through the end of Game 3, he didn't attempt a single 3. He physically couldn't generate enough lift on his shot to do so. Of the 13 shots he missed following the injury, six missed short. Why bother with 3s if you can't even reach the rim?
The mere fact that Paul was willing to try them showed how much more confident he was in that shoulder on Sunday, and that confidence showed through in every facet of his game. He was making the cross-court passes that he couldn't even try earlier in the series. He didn't turn the ball over once, and he relentlessly hunted for Andre Drummond in pick-and-roll knowing that he could get tough fadeaway jumpers in the mid-range whenever he wanted them. Those are shots players can only make consistently with a fully functioning shoulder, and Paul looks about as close to that as the Suns could've asked for.
2. Davis' absence just puts more pressure on LeBron
Anthony Davis left the game in the second quarter, but the Lakers had already been outscored by eight points with him on the floor. He shot 2 of 9 from the field for six points and four rebounds. That's what makes his situation so terrifying for the Lakers. He was already dealing with an injury. At the end of Game 3, he hyperextended his right knee but resolved to play through it. Now he has a strained left groin to contend with as well.
Recovering from one injury is hard enough. Davis clearly wasn't right in Game 4. Now he has to recover from two, and do so in a compressed time frame, and that presents all sorts of other risks. In fact, the first injury could have played a part in the second for all we know. Playing with an injured leg often forces players to overcompensate with the other. Davis already has a scary history of injuries. He missed half of this season, thanks to issues with his calf and Achilles. Virtually every part of his leg has been banged up at some point or another this season. The Lakers just gave Davis a five-year contract. As much as they'd like to repeat as champions, they have to consider the risk to his long-term health as well here.
All of this is to say that there is a good chance the Lakers play the rest of this series without one of their two superstars, and it's not as though their other one has looked like himself thus far in this series. LeBron James has scored 25 or fewer points in all four games of this series. That has happened just twice in his career, and they were arguably the two worst series of his life: the 2007 and 2011 NBA Finals.
LeBron scored 40 points once this season. He didn't even get to 10 30-point outings. He's still LeBron, the basketball genius. But is he still LeBron, the overpowering athlete capable of dominating every facet of an entire game? Does he still have the fifth gear that led the Lakers to the championship last season? Because if he doesn't, and Davis does need to miss time, the Lakers are probably going home in the next week. It's as simple as that. This series is going to come down to James.
3. Tinkering with the Lakers rotation
When Davis went down, Frank Vogel had to improvise. Both Markieff Morris and Montrezl Harrell had been held out of two games entirely in this series. Both got run when Davis got hurt. Ben McLemore played 16 minutes after getting only three in the first three games, but ascension was due to the absence of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His Game 5 status is unclear as well.
With so many players possibly out leading into Game 5, the Lakers might have to continue to get creative with their rotation if they hope to keep this series goes. It should be noted that Marc Gasol led all three centers with 23 minutes played, including the final stretch, and should be a candidate to return to the starting lineup. The same should be said of Alex Caruso, who had a Lakers-best plus-eight point-differential in the loss.
With such limited shot creation, Harrell might have a chance to earn some minutes back over Drummond. Talen Horton-Tucker might be able to force his way back into the rotation as well, especially if the Lakers continue to play stretches with both James and Dennis Schroder on the bench. Beyond Davis and James, the Lakers have a roster of specialists. Horton-Tucker and Harrell create shots. Caldwell-Pope, McLemore and Wes Matthews make them. Drummond rebounds them. Winning Game 5 with a limited roster is going to be about striking the right balance between those specialists. There is a combination of players somewhere on this roster that can beat the Suns. Now it's up to Vogel to find it.