Battle-Tested Lakers Provide Challenging First-Round Matchup For Upstart Suns

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

On Sunday, the city of Phoenix will host an NBA playoff game for the first time since 2010, when the second-seeded Suns take on the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the opening game of what is expected to be a thrilling first-round matchup between the two Pacific Division rivals.

Phoenix ended its lengthy playoff drought in style, boasting the second-best record in the NBA during the regular season and winning the Pacific by a comfortable margin of four games.

The defending champion Lakers on the other hand, struggled with injuries and did not automatically qualify for the playoffs, instead earning a postseason berth by beating the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament.

In spite of the Suns’ regular-season success, the Lakers’ star power and recent playoff results have made them heavy favorites in the leadup to the series. William Hill Sportsbook lists Los Angeles as a -270 favorite while FanDuel gives the Lakers -150 odds of winning the series.

In an appearance on The Brad Cesmat Show, ESPN regular and Sirius XM NBA radio host Frank Isola sang a similar tune, picking the Lakers to beat the Suns and citing Los Angeles’ high-end talent as the main reason why.

To be fair, LeBron James is on [the Lakers],” Isola said. “I never bet against Michael Jordan. I felt any playoff series he was going to be in, he was going to win. I kind of feel that same way with LeBron James.”

The Brad Cesmat Show

While James has never lost a first-round series in his 18-year NBA career, this season has come with its share of trials for the 36-year-old forward.

He played a career-low 45 games due to a sprained ankle and the Lakers struggled in his absence, posting a 12-15 record without James in the lineup. He has since returned to action, but his health will be something to monitor as the series unfolds.

Isola also expressed his belief that the abundance of youth on the Suns’ roster would pose problems come playoff time, especially as the series shifts to Los Angeles, where Phoenix’s young stars will play in front of a rambunctious Staples Center crowd for the first time. 

“Remember the experience,” he said. “(Suns point guard) Chris Paul has a ton of it, but what does (Suns center) DeAndre Ayton have, what does (Suns guard) Devin Booker have? If they don’t win [the first two] games in Phoenix, they’ll be going on the road to L.A., there’s going to be fans there, that’s going to be a whole different environment.” 

Although the Suns’ core is mostly made up of younger players, Phoenix has a number of seasoned veterans in their supporting cast, including forward Jae Crowder.

Crowder played against the Lakers in last year’s NBA Finals as a member of the Miami Heat, and his 72-game-long playoff resume makes him a potential x-factor for the Suns in their attempt to unseat the defending champions.

“There will come a point in this series where [Crowder] will hit a big corner three,” Isola said. “You see it all the time with [the Suns], they’ll reverse the ball, next thing you know it’ll be in Jae Crowder’s hands and he’ll knock down a three. Plus he can guard multiple positions. That’s the kind of experience you need.”

Out of the eight first-round matchups, the series between the Suns and Lakers might feature the most captivating storylines. Young against old, incumbent champions against a team fresh off of a decade-long playoff drought, big market against small market. 

The Lakers may enter as favorites, but the Suns have embraced the underdog role since the start of the NBA bubble last summer. As the last of the 13 Western Conference teams invited to the tournament, Phoenix had few expectations and many doubters to silence.

The Suns’ undefeated run in the bubble carried over to this season, when they once again exceeded expectations and took the league by storm. Their legitimacy as a contender continues to be called into question, but the Suns seem to play better when they have something to prove.

Fittingly enough, Phoenix’s most recent playoff appearance prior to this season came against the Lakers, who eliminated them in game six of the 2010 Western Conference Finals.

Although rosters have changed and many years have passed since the two teams last met in the playoffs, the rivalry remains as strong as ever, and the Suns will have a chance at revenge. Will Phoenix dethrone the mighty Lakers, or will history repeat itself? All will be revealed once the ball is tipped off on Sunday afternoon.