Lakers' Keys to Avoiding Elimination vs. Suns in Game 6 of 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 3, 2021

Lakers' Keys to Avoiding Elimination vs. Suns in Game 6 of 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    It's win-or-go-fishing time for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Not even one calendar year removed from winning an NBA title, the Lakers are faced with the very real prospect of a first-round elimination at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. After seizing control of this series with wins in Games 2 and 3, the Lakers have dropped two in a row and now need to claw out a Game 6 victory on Thursday night just to see another must-win game two nights later.

    Clearly, it's not looking great for L.A., and that's being as kind as possible. Without Anthony Davis (more on him later) in Game 5, the Lakers were steamrolled in a worse-than-it-sounds 30-point loss. They carried that same disadvantage into halftime after being trampled by a 32-10 count in a listless second quarter.

    That doesn't mean the Lakers are without hope, though. Their margin for error is gone, but they can live to fight another day if the following three keys come through.

Hope for Good Fortune with Anthony Davis

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    OK, so maybe this isn't technically a key to victory, since it's outside of the Lakers' control. But it is the biggest plot line going into Game 6, so we'll allow it.

    A groin strain limited Davis to 19 minutes in Game 4 and kept him sidelined in Game 5. Whether it banishes him to the bench again in Game 6 is a decision the team's medical staff will make.

    "Hopefully all the rehab and treatment that I'm doing pays off and the doctors clear me to go," Davis told reporters. "That's what we want. So, getting more treatment tonight, tomorrow, and kind of talk to the doctors before the game—before and after I shootand hopefully everything comes back good where they clear me."

    It's not hyperbolic to suggest this entire series may hinge on Davis' availability.

    The Suns, like most teams, don't have an answer for him. The only two times he's looked like himself this series are the only two Lakers wins. In them, he totaled a combined 68 points, 21 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and two steals. L.A., which won those games by a total of 21 points, won Davis' minutes by 17.

    The Lakers' two-star model with Davis and LeBron James at the top only works if both players are on the hardwood and dominating. If not, the roster can quickly appear problematically top-heavy and unable to compensate for the loss of an elite.

LeBron Doing LeBron Things

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    By the numbers, James has mostly been himself this series. He averaged 25.0 points, 7.8 assists and 7.7 rebounds during the regular season. In this series, those averages are 22.2, 8.2 and 6.8, respectively.

    That all seems well and good, but there are games in which James just hasn't made his presence felt.

    Despite being generally productive in Game 5 (24 points and seven assists), he couldn't control the contest. He wasn't attacking downhill and too often settling for contested jumpers. He never even went to the free-throw line, which is something he hadn't done since Nov. 2019. His minus-24 was his worst plus/minus of the entire season.

    With or without Davis, James can't play like that again. The Lakers need him to dominate. If he's not the best player on the floor, he at least needs to put himself in that discussion. With his undefeated first-round record on the line, he sounds ready to do whatever it takes to will his team to victory.

    "You shoot all the bullets you've got and throw the gun too," James told reporters. "I look forward to the environment. Obviously, our Laker faithful are going to give us a lot of energy. I look forward to the moment. I look forward to the challenge and see if it brings out the best in me and my teammates."

Make Open Shots

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Lakers aren't a good shooting team.

    In the regular season, they ranked bottom-third in three-point makes, attempts and percentage. In the postseason, it's been even more dire. Only the eliminated Washington Wizards made fewer threes than L.A.'s 9.8 per game or shot a worse percentage than its 30.2 connection rate.

    That being said, the Lakers shouldn't be this bad from distance. They're going to get open looks by way of James' gravitational pull on defenders. They just need to knock them down. So far, when L.A.'s shooters have between four and six feet of space, they're hitting just 26.2 percent of their threes. With six-plus feet of room to fire, they're only knocking down 33.7 percent of those looks.

    That's not a winning formula. Not in the modern NBA, at least.

    "We got to knock down shots, you know what I mean," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after Game 5. "It's a make-or-miss league."

    Just about everyone on the Lakers is missing early and often. Dennis Schroder, who followed an eight-point dud in Game 4 with a miserable scoreless Game 5, is shooting 30 percent from three. Alex Caruso (29.4) and Wesley Matthews (26.3) aren't even at that level. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 1-of-13 from distance. Davis is 2-of-11. Put them together, and that's a 12.5 percent success rate.

    The Lakers are defending well enough to win these games. Game 5 was the Suns' first time topping 102 points. But that won't matter if L.A.'s shooters can't find their mark.