If you were looking for playoff drama, this was the first round series you should’ve been paying attention to. The Phoenix Suns got possibly the toughest first round matchup a number two seed has ever seen with LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. They were able to overcome that hurtle, however, and now they are in the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in over a decade. Rejoice.
Free Picks: Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 2021 Western Conference Playoffs Round 1
Series Results: Suns wins series 4-2
The series started out inauspiciously for both sides, with the Los Angeles Lakers dropping Game 1 and the Phoenix Suns seeing their leader and most important hooper, veteran point guard Chris Paul, go down with a shoulder ailment. The injury would go on to bother Paul for the next two games, both of which his team lost to the Lakers.
Paul eventually got over what was ailing his shoulder and led the Suns to three straight victories to win the series and boot the defending champs in the first round on their home court, becoming just the fifth team in NBA history to do so. But really, saying that Paul led them to the series win is slightly incorrect: it was youngster Devin Booker that was really the catalyst for this success.
Obviously credit goes to Paul and likely NBA Coach of the Year Monty Williams for their contributions, but it was the young guns that were the real reason for the Phoenix victory. DeAndre Ayton took a huge step forward with the type of productive and consistent performance he gave his squad on both sides of the court night in and night out, and Booker was simply out of this world, dropping 47 on the Lakers in Game 6 as he waved them goodbye.
The Lakers now find themselves in a tough spot with a ton of potential free agents and a major makeover for the roster possibly on the horizon. The extra offseason time will be good for both LeBron James and Anthony Davis as they heal from the injuries that stunted their playoff effectiveness over the past few weeks, but who they add as the third star will be a big story to watch over the summer.
The Suns will now host the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in a second round series not many expected considering that Damian Lillard and LeBron James played for their first round opponents. Nevertheless, here we are. This promises to be an exciting series showcasing some of the best and most electrifying young talent in the association, but I’m certainly leaning towards Nikola Jokic and the Nuggys for my NBA pick.
May 23, 03:30 p.m., Phoenix Suns Arena
The Phoenix Suns are certainly coming into this matchup on a bit more of a roll than the Los Angeles Lakers, having won their last three regular season games and taking seven of their past 10. The Suns have been one of the great stories in the NBA and in sports over the past year, as the team was able to jump from a doormat to a title contender in just two years.
That chasm of difference from the end of the 2019 season to now can be attributed to a world-class coaching job by Monty Williams, the shrewd acquisition of MVP candidate Chris Paul, and the continued emergence of youngsters Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges.
The signing of Jae Crowder in the offseason was also an extremely underrated move, in my opinion. Crowder is a wonderful perimeter defender, and while his three-point jumper isn’t as automatic as it was last year with the Heat when he was hitting at 46 percent, he’s still just below 40 percent for the season, which is the third best mark of his career.
Crowder could prove to be a decent foil to LeBron James, and when I say decent foil, I mean someone who can slow him down slightly, because Playoff Bron is a different animal. The thing is, Playoff Bron has emerged from his regular season slumber a little late in the King’s last two forays into the playoffs, which is why we like the Suns’ NBA point spread as our NBA prediction for this clash.
Last season the Lakers took it easy on the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1, allowing them to take the game before stomping them in the next four contests. In 2018, LeBron’s last playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he also lost the first game of the postseason before leading his team to the NBA Finals.
We like that trend to continue for the King: he’s another year older and it’s certainly plausible that he waits an extra game before really turning it on. While he did hit that Curry-like three-pointer over Steph Curry himself to punch Los Angeles’ playoff ticket, he did not have a great game overall on Wednesday night.
In fact, he, Dennis Schroder, and Anthony Davis were all abysmal in the first half, before the latter turned it on in the second thanks to a move up to the five spot, where he has historically been much more effective but curiously less willing to play.
Another reason we have the Suns as a top pick today, is because of Paul’s intelligence. He knows that he and his team have to take advantage of every opportunity they get against the NBA’s defending champions, and this first game, when the Lakers may still be a bit groggy and out of sync after missing so many players for such significant times, seems like a perfect chance to steal a game from the King and his purple and gold posse.
Phoenix has really enjoyed playing in the desert this season as well. While some may not like the hot and dry desert, Williams’ Suns have looked more comfortable there than any team has in their home digs: they went an NBA-leading 23-13 against the spread at home this year. Their 21-11 ATS mark as the home favorite was also good for fourth in the association. We like Phoenix to cover -2.5 points at solid -110 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.
Game 2 (Suns leads 1-0)
May 25, 10:00 p.m., Phoenix Suns Arena
And that really is the question for this first round series: can LeBron James and his comrades turn the burners on and get back to their championship-winning selves. This is a different and, arguably, lesser version of that 2020 championship team, but it is still led by Anthony Davis and James, who is one of the best in the game at lifting those around him.
Last year, the Lakers came into the Western Conference playoffs as the number one seed. They took on the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of that postseason and dropped the first game just like they did here against the Phoenix Suns in Game 1. They proceeded to run the table and defeat the Blazers in five games.
Next, it was the Houston Rockets, who once again took Game 1 against LeBron’s Lakers. And once again the Lakers came back to finish the series in five games. I’m not suggesting that this is the scenario to expect from the current Suns-Lakers series, but I do believe in the notion that the King still has enough in the tank to allow himself to cool out during Game 1 and come back stronger and more aggressive during the rest of the series.
The King was certainly not looking like himself in Game 1, struggling to a 6-for-13 shooting mark with 18 points, though he did add 10 dimes as well. I have no doubts about LeBron upping his game when he really needs to, despite the fact that that threshold continues to get later and later into each postseason and series as his career goes on as he continues to put more focus on how he can conserve energy as he enters his late 30s.
The one that Lakers fans and bettors really need to consider is his sidekick, Anthony Davis. With the size, skills, talent, defensive instincts, and basketball IQ that the Brow possesses, he should be far and away the best player in the NBA, but it has become clear since he joined the Lakers that Davis’ focus can easily drift when the game is not tight or he is having a rough night shooting the ball.
DeAndre Ayton played him very well in Game 1, and considering Ayton was also able to put the clamps on the presumptive NBA MVP this season, Nikola Jokic, it would not be out of the question to think that his suffocating defense might continue to mess with Davis’ offensive mojo.
The Brow went just 5-for-16 from the field on the night, also running up a -18 plus-minus that represented a game-low for both teams. He played similarly poorly in the first half of the play-in game against the Golden State Warriors last week before moving to the five and finding a lot more success, essentially leading L.A. to the win in the game despite the fact that LeBron is the one that hit the signature shot.
Davis’ bounce back potential really excites me and factored heavily into our NBA pick for Game 2, but that’s not the only reason we like the Lakeshow to even up the series on Tuesday night. Chris Paul may not be the best player on the Suns—that honor now belongs to Devin Booker, I think we can all agree—but he is definitely the most important.
Paul hurt his shoulder in Game 1, and though he came back to finish the game, he was clearly affected by what is being called a ‘stinger’. Those kinds of ailments don’t usually manifest themselves in missed games, but CP3 may be significantly hindered in Game 2 and moving forward. Whether he’s closer to 90 percent or 60 percent is really anyone’s guess, so we’re erring on the side of caution with our top picks tonight.
Paul will likely play, but he will almost certainly be coming in at less than 100 percent, and with the pesky guards of the Lakers such as Alex Caruso and Dennis Schroder harassing him, it may only be a matter of time before the 36-year-old aggravates whatever is wrong with his sore shoulder.
Paul can still play with the best of them, exhibiting the best mid range game in basketball while also showing elite skills in terms of playmaking, deep shooting, and scoring at the basket. Having him at less than 100 percent is nothing to take lightly, and even without that injury, we were already leaning towards the Lakers to tie this series up. We like L.A. to cover their tiny -1.5 NBA point spread at -110 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.
Game 3 (series tied at 1-1)
May 27, 10:00 p.m., Staples Center
The fact that the Phoenix Suns didn’t have much access to arguably their most important player didn’t hurt LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers either. The man in question is Chris Paul, and while teammate Devin Booker might be a better hooper at this point in their careers, it doesn’t appear that there is anyone as crucial to Phoenix’s success as Paul.
He sat out a lot of Game 1 as well, but he was in for the stretch run, and even if he’s not doing much, his teammates take heart from seeing their wounded general go to war with them. That tactic only works for so long, however, because at a point, if that general does not recover significantly enough, he begins to hinder his comrades in battle.
That’s what began to happen in Game 2 after Paul tried to power through the injury and join his teammates on the floor. He managed to stay out there for 23 minutes, scoring six points and dishing out five dimes—not bad for a guy with one arm—but head coach Monty Williams had to make the judgement call to pull the 36-year-old for his own good in the second half.
His shooting, dribbling, and running were clearly hindered by what’s being called a shoulder contusion, which he sustained in Game 1. He played only seven minutes in the second half, so you’d have to believe that a contusion (fancy word for bruise) wouldn’t be enough to keep a guy like Paul from performing in the clutch for his team.
Booker looked utterly despondent after the game and seemed genuinely out of the loop as to how Paul’s shoulder was doing. All signs are pointing to an issue far more serious than a contusion, maybe a labrum or muscle issue. They say they’re hopeful it gets better over the next 48 hours—I’m not so sure. I won’t speculate further, but that’s why we like the Lakers as one of our top picks once again.
It’s true that Phoenix was without Paul for most of the crucial moments in Game 2, but it wasn’t like the rest of the team played poorly. Booker still had 31 points and was slicing his way into the paint to earn fouls seemingly at will, DeAndre Ayton was essentially unstoppable once again going 11-for-13 from the field for 22 points and 10 boards, and Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson both hit a couple of big triples and played solid D.
The biggest boost came from Paul’s direct replacement, however, the pesky and fiery Murray State alumnus Cameron Payne. Do you remember when Russell Westbrook was in his last few years with the Oklahoma City Thunder and he would always do a little pregame dance show with a young teammate that never actually played? Well, that was Payne.
He is doing a lot more than dancing on the court now, and he better get ready for an even bigger increase in minutes and responsibility if Paul’s injury is as serious as it seems. He stepped in during Game 2 when it became clear that CP3 was not CP3 and single-handedly kept his team in the game at times not only with his trademark fire and grit, but with 19 points, seven dimes, three rebounds, two blocks, and a steal while going 3-for-7 from deep.
The kid was an absolute spark plug, the type of guy you hate to play but love to play with, but it seems like we just saw his ceiling on Tuesday night. That is to say, he’s a great energy boost, but he’s not Chris Paul. Can Ayton and Booker pick up Paul’s slack and lead this team? I don’t see how they can: they simply don’t have the basketball IQ and playoff experience he possesses, which is another reason why L.A. is our NBA pick for this one.
Another big factor making L.A. our best bet for today is the reemergence of Anthony Davis after his ugly performance in Game 1. He put the onus on himself for the loss and told the media he took responsibility for Game 1—and then he responded with 34 points, 10 boards, and seven dimes in Game 2. Hopefully he doesn’t sit back in his seat again.
The Lakers might not run the table over the rest of the series, but if Paul doesn’t play, Game 3 will be a great way of determining how the rest of the series will go. Good thing the Suns haven’t played well against the Lakeshow at Staples lately, going 2-5 against the spread in their last seven meetings there.
Because of Paul’s likely absence the Lakers have become big-time favorites for Game 3, and with good reason. We’re going to ride with the King and the Brow on a -7.5 NBA point spread at juicy +100 NBA odds as one of our top picks of the day. If Paul does play, we’re still feeling good about L.A., but we’d expect that spread to move down to about three or four points, which is also fair.
Game 4 ( Lakers leads series 2-1)
May 30, 03:30 p.m., Staples Center
(Playoff Betting Record: 14-8, +5.45 Units)
The Phoenix Suns actually led Game 3 after one quarter, though they would relinquish the lead for good with just under five minutes left in the second frame when the score was 39-38 after a couple of free throw makes from Devin Booker. The defensive nature of this first round matchup was apparent at that point as neither team would score for over three full minutes of game action after those Booker free throws.
But eventually someone had to get back on the board, and that was the Lakers, who went on a 5-1 run to finish the half off with a three point lead. The second quarter would finish with the Lakers managing 16 points and the Suns putting up just a dozen. That’s basically a point a minute for a whole quarter, and it wasn’t like the Suns were having a bad shooting night, the Lakers were just playing that good defensively.
This series has a bit of that hard-nosed, old-school vibe to it with the low-scoring nature of the games and the chippiness of players on both sides. The Suns are averaging just 98.7 points a game so far in this series (second lowest in the playoffs), having topped the century mark just once, but the Lakers aren’t that far ahead, averaging just 102.7 a night, second-lowest among series-leading teams.
But that’s the kind of contest the Lakers want to play, low-scoring games of attrition where they’re able to find team success despite some pretty suspect shooting in this series so far, especially from behind the three-point line. This is Booker and Phoenix big man DeAndre Ayton’s first foray into the playoffs, and the defensive masterclass that L.A. head coach Frank Vogel is putting them through is certainly something, and also serves as a big reason we like the Lakers for our NBA pick here.
But while the Lakers have been playing superb overall defense against Phoenix head coach Monty Williams’ Sun’s, Ayton has been someone that they have yet to figure out how to stop. The 22-year-old is averaging 21.7 points and 12.6 rebounds a game on ridiculous 83 percent shooting from the field. I’m serious, the guy has missed just seven of his 39 shots throughout the series so far.
That is damn good considering he’s playing a lot of minutes across from Anthony Davis, who’s defensive acumen puts him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation every season. That doesn’t matter to Ayton, apparently, but it also seems like the Lakers don’t really care about what Ayton does either.
L.A. doesn’t really need to worry about Jae Crowder right now because he has been an absolute zero on that end after having led the Suns in three point shooting percentage during the regular season. Instead of focusing their energy on beefing up the paint to stop Ayton or crowding the three-point line on Crowder, it’s Booker that they’ve been keying in on, and it seems as though their strategy is finally bearing fruit.
Since putting up 34 points on 50 percent shooting while leading the Suns to the victory in Game 1, Booker’s offense has gotten progressively worse with each passing game. In Game 2, he put in 31 points on 41 percent shooting from the field, relying largely on the free throw line–where he went 17-for-17 on the night—for his offensive production. Then, in Game 3, it got a lot worse, with Booker going 6-for-19 from the field for just 19 points.
It’s clear what has happened. Since Chris Paul got hurt, the Lakers have stopped respecting the 36-year-old’s game like they would if he was at 100 percent, which allows them to put more and more defensive manpower towards stopping Booker, and it has worked. Paul claims the fall he had in Game 3 didn’t aggravate his shoulder, but either way, he just doesn’t look right, and even if he was healthy, I’d probably still be going with the Lakers here.
Another reason we like the Lakers as one of our top picks today is the play of their bigs. Anthony Davis has been uber-aggressive, shooting double-digit free throws in each of the Lakers’ wins. New recruit Andre Drummond has been contributing nicely too, working hard on the glass over the past couple of games. Drummond and the Brow actually combined for a whopping nine offensive rebounds in Game 3.
There was some initial sentiment that Ayton had what it took to stop AD consistently, but clearly that was just a case of the Brow being too laid back and nonchalant in Game 1, because he’s been getting anything he wants over the past two games, averaging 34 points and 17.5 free throw attempts over the past two games.
Phoenix continues to try to convince everyone that Paul is not dealing with a significant injury, but most people are not buying it, and you can count me in that group. CP3 seems severely hampered, and with that in mind, the Lakers should be able to handle a -6.5 NBA point spread for us at solid -110 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.
Game 5 (series tied 2-2)
June 1, 10:00p.m., Phoenix Suns Arena
(Playoff Betting Record: 18-12, +5.16 Units)
First, it was the Phoenix Suns who had to deal with an injury to their most important player and emotional leader, Chris Paul. They claimed it was just a stinger, but considering how much he was favoring the injured area in Games 2 and 3, it was feared that it was something more serious and he would not be able to play a significant role in helping his team win this very tough first round matchup.
Paul looked a lot better in leading his team to a Game 4 win, putting in a team-high 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting from the field to go with nine dimes. Clearly, his shoulder was feeling better considering he had taken just 13 shots in the two previous games combined. Not to mention it came just in time, as Phoenix’s other guards that have been holding it down for Paul over the past two games really struggled.
Devin Booker went just 5-for-14 from the field for 17 points, while backup point guard Cameron Payne went just 5-for-12 from the floor. Thankfully, DeAndre Ayton continued to dominate down low and on the boards, and there was finally a Jae Crowder sighting on Sunday afternoon as well, with the veteran going 6-for-12 from the field for 17 points after contributing nothing but his time for most of the first three games.
The most important part of that Game 4 defeat for the Los Angeles Lakers was undoubtedly the loss of big man Anthony Davis to a groin strain which he suffered just before half and which kept him out for the rest of the game. The Lakers had gone into halftime down just four, but without the Brow, they struggled to find scoring options, and were dominated to the tune of a 27-15 score in that third frame.
Davis is not expected to play in Game 5, though there is a lot of optimism that he will be available for Game 6 and beyond. LeBron James is still not at 100 percent and reportedly will not be able to reach full health until after his team’s playoff run ends, whenever that will be. If the King has anything to say about it, the Lakers will head into Game 6 feeling pretty good about themselves, which is why we’re leaning L.A. for our NBA pick.
We actually like the Lakers to win, but just to be safe, we’re going to stick with a reasonable NBA point spread for them in Game 5. Dennis Schroder, who has had a great series but went just 3-for-13 from the field on Sunday, will no doubt bounce back big time, and the addition of Ben McLemore to the rotation could add a level of potency from outside that L.A. has been missing of late.
LeBron was the only Laker in the starting five to score in double-digits on Sunday, and you can bet your bottom dollar that will not happen again. Andre Drummond is no Davis, but he has been named to multiple All-Star teams: the guy is talented in the low block as well as working the glass, both offensive and defensive. He needs to put his hard hat on in the desert on Tuesday and give his squad a workmanlike performance to supplement LeBron.
Without AD, LeBron is going to have to carry his team, he knows that. And when I say carry, I don’t mean 17 assists, I mean at least 30 points. He needs to be aggressive getting to the basket and the free throw line if the Lakers are going to have success without his sidekick. He can not rely on the supporting cast to do that, even if he does set them up with good, open looks.
It will be interesting to see how Lakers head coach Frank Vogel goes about his rotation and starting lineup without the Brow, but one thing you can count on is a lot of points from the NBA postseason’s all-time leading scorer. With that said, we love the King to score 30+, so we suggest taking the over on his 29.5 points prop at beautiful +160 NBA odds on 22Bet.
Davis is a huge loss, but we’ve seen LeBron James carry teams worse than this one through the postseason before, and despite his advanced age, I still believe the GOAT can single-handedly get his team at least one win while they await the return of Anthony Davis for the stretch run.
We like the Lakers to win this one straight up, but not enough to take their moneyline. Instead, we’re going with L.A.’s +4.5 NBA point spread at lovely +103 NBA odds as one of our top picks for Tuesday night. We are a lot more confident about that LeBron points prop, though, which is why it is by far one of our best bets of the day, especially considering those tasty odds.
Game 6 (Suns leads series 3-2)
June 3, 10:30 p.m., Staples Center
(Playoff Betting Record: 21-14, +5.92 Units)
Please forgive me, but I admit right from the jump that I did not watch the second half of the butt-whooping the Phoenix Suns put on the Los Angeles Lakers in the desert on Tuesday night. How could I when Damian Lillard was busy making history over on NBA TV? It was the first time in a long time that I missed Inside the NBA on TNT, and I have no regrets whatsoever.
But anyway, back to the matter at hand. After going up 2-1 in the series on the strength of back-to-back 34-point efforts from Anthony Davis, the frail big man went down with a groin strain in Game 4, and the Suns dominated the second half sans AD to win the game and tie the series up.
Davis was unavailable again on Tuesday night, putting all of the weight on LeBron James’ shoulders, something that he was apparently aware of and ready for. Not so. The King looked decent through one quarter, putting up seven points in the opening frame, but the bottom fell out during the second 12 minutes of the contest.
Lebron did not make a field goal in the second quarter, and his team got outscored—I kid you not—by a score of 32-10. The Lakers went into halftime down 66-36. Talk about embarrassing. James would finish the game with 24 points, going a silly 6-for-10 from beyond the arc, but most of that damage came too little too late.
Not to mention that for the second straight game, LeBron was the only starter to score in double-figures. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope somehow took just one shot, which he missed, Andre Drummond was good on the glass with 13 rebounds, but he went just 2-for-5 from the field for 7 points, which isn’t nearly enough, and Dennis Schroder went an ungodly 0-for-9 from the field for zero points.
It wasn’t getting any better on the bench, where Wesley Matthews, Ben McLemore, and Alex Caruso combined to go 3-for-18 from the floor. Yikes. The Lakers really need Davis to return if they are going to stay alive in this postseason tournament, but they might be able to pull off one game without the big man.
LeBron led his team in scoring on Tuesday, but that really isn’t saying much considering how his supporting cast played. LeBron was not nearly aggressive enough in Game 5 considering the characters that he’s playing with. He will need to carry the load on Thursday, and considering his team is now on the brink of elimination, I doubt he will quit on the game like he did on Tuesday.
While he didn’t meet our expectations last game, we like the King to do it for us this time around. It’s not our main NBA pick, but we like LeBron to hit the over on his 31.5 points prop at -109 NBA odds on Thursday night, especially if AD is unable to go. If LeBron’s sidekick is in the lineup, however, we are a lot less bullish on this prop.
We are still unsure about the Brow’s availability for Game 6, but either way, we like LeBron to lead his comrades to a victory to at least force a Game 7. The GOAT has never in his career made a playoff exit in the first round, and we don’t expect the first occurrence to be in anything less than seven games, if at all.
Thankfully for the Suns, they did not have to play Chris Paul too much thanks to that insane second quarter, therefore saving him up for this big Game 6. He seems to have moved past whatever was ailing him early in the series, though he went just 3-for-9 from the field on Tuesday.
Instead, it was Devin Booker and backup point guard Cameron Payne that were getting the job done for the Suns, combining for 46 points on 20-for-34 shooting from the field. Payne has had a couple of outbursts like that in this series, but we wouldn’t expect it to become anything regular, and so our NBA pick here is also somewhat reliant on the youngster returning back to his average.
It’s simply unfathomable to think that LeBron James’ team will go out of the playoffs in the first round for the first time ever, especially not in just six games. LeBron is arguably the best player to ever lace em up. He can score, he’s a playmaker, he can shoot from deep, and he can defend with the best of them. He will find a way to get the job done.
Back in the familiarity of Staples Center, the Lakers will be fighting for their playoff lives on Thursday, and we’d expect them to use that as fuel for a big, fat bounce back performance. We’re going with the Lakers to cover a -2.5 NBA point spread at solid -106 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today. Put your faith in the King.
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Alex is an alumnus of Ryerson University's RTA Sport Media program, a contributing NHL, NBA, and MLB writer in the BetPicks.ca team. He has been writing on sports, betting, and fantasy contests for several years, including pitstops as an NFL Editor for theScore and as one of the lead NBA news writers for fantasy sports site FantasyPros. As a lifelong athlete, bettor, and sports fan, Alex is uniquely qualified to help you reach the sports betting success that you've always dreamed of and your wife never believed you could achieve.