What a game. On a night the Lakers defense was not in top form and one where the Suns made them pay for it with high level offensive execution and shot making, the Lakers were again able to muster up enough plays to win the game late and set the Suns 123-115 to move to 8-2 on the season.
So much happened in this game this recap could easily be 2,000 words, but I won’t make you suffer through that. Instead, let’s focus on two or three big takeaways from one of the more fun, and stressful, games of this young season…
First, this was a “strength on strength” game where the Suns outside shooting ability was going up against the Lakers top ranked defense and the Suns won out for most the game. The Lakers defense at the point of attack simply failed them over and over again, allowing the Suns too much dribble penetration that forced help from all over the floor and led to a bunch of kick out passes to open shooters. Further, the Suns ran a bunch of pick and pop actions where the ball handler would string out the dribble and then kick the ball back to spotting up big men who were ready to fire away.
The result was made 3 after made 3, mostly from the Suns PF’s and C’s. Through 3 quarters the Suns had made 13 of 26 shots from behind the arc with Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, and Frank Kaminsky doing most of the damage. The Suns got in such a rhythm, that even when the Lakers rotations got sharper, it didn’t much matter as those big players often found themselves shooting over smaller defenders who either ended up switching onto them or rotating off their own player to fly over and contest.
Second, even as the Suns were burying shots, the Lakers were doing their own offensive damage from all over the floor — but mostly right in the restricted area. They say that styles make fights and it was super fun to watch the Lakers, led by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee bully through and go over defenders to finish at the basket time and time again. During one sequence to start the 3rd quarter, McGee scored 9 points on 4 dunks + a free throw — with the pinnacle one being a drive from 18 feet against Baynes where JaVale swooped in and went full on Inspector Gadget extension to cram one over the top of Baynes.
Third, as was reported yesterday, Rajon Rondo returned to play vs. the Suns and offered a glimpse of how he could help the team now that he’s healthy enough to play. Rondo, who was on a minutes restriction, only played 14 minutes and only made 2 of his 6 shots for 5 points. But he also had 6 rebounds, 7 assists (with 0 turnovers), and did a good job of running the team’s sets as the backup point guard (and even some when LeBron was on the floor).
Rondo was especially impactful in establishing tempo and pushing the pace in his first shift, which set a tone for how that 2nd unit was going to play. This was particularly helpful to Kyle Kuzma who got some early baskets in transition, including a great Kuz-style finish where caught a pass from Rondo while filling the lane and then euro-stepped into an off balance finish. Kuz carried this early momentum into the later stages of the game and really came up big when the game hung in the balance.
Which brings us to the close of the game. The final 4 minutes of this game were simply riveting as both teams went back and forth trying to take control to seize the game from the other side. But it was the Lakers who prevailed, mostly on the back of a three huge 3-pointers, two from Kuzma and one from LeBron. One of those Kuzma threes came on what was, for my money, the play of the game when, after LeBron missed a deep 3 attempt, Avery Bradley swooped in for an offensive rebounding, ducking in front of Baynes in the process. After securing the all, Bradley kicked the ball out to Caruso who then swung the ball to Kuzma. With a reset shot clock, the more prudent play might have been to hold the ball, but Kuz was wide open and fired up a 3 instead and he absolutely buried it.
That sequence swung the game and put the Lakers into the drivers seat to close things out, which they did via some good playmaking from LeBron and some tightened defense vs. a much colder Suns offense than was the case through the first 3 quarters.
So, the Lakers are now 8-2 through their first 10 games. They’ve had some games go their way that probably shouldn’t have, but those wins also reflect that resiliency I’ve mentioned so many times to this point in the year. The Lakers are fun, you guys. And now, some notes…
- Let’s lead with Anthony Davis who was a bit banged up this game, both with his sore shoulder and, from this game, a lower rib ailment after taking a shot early. Davis, though clearly not 100% physically, scored 24 points on 9-17 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished 4 assists, had 2 steals, and blocked a shot. Davis’ impact was not always as loud as his stat line would imply, but he had several really big moments that stood out to me that didn’t appear in the boxscore at all, save for a missed FGA by a Sun. On two separate plays he forced airballed layups — one from Devin Booker, one from Mikal Bridges — by rotating well and contesting with his amazing length. These are the types of plays that Davis makes every game and we’d be wise to recognize their impact because the Lakers don’t have the record they do without them.
- I pointed this out on twitter, but it bears repeating here. Alex Caruso played 25 minutes, but only scored 2 points on 1-4 shooting and only snared 3 rebounds. But he was a team high +15 in the boxscore, mostly because he defended his tail off, set a bunch of great screens (including several late on ball screens for LeBron), and did a bunch of little things that helped the Lakers in the aggregate. He was particularly good when defending Booker, playing physical, drawing a couple of charges, and mostly being an irritant that seemed to really get under Booker’s skin. These are things that make a big difference even if, like I noted with Davis earlier, they don’t always show up in traditional counting stats.
- LeBron made some really big plays down the stretch and, really, throughout the game. But his final stat line shows a fairly uneven performance. I don’t want to be too hard on him here — after all, he had 19 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds! These are fantastic numbers for 95% of the league. That said, LeBron was not at his best this game and, in particular, his struggles from the FT line stood out vs. the Suns. Bron went 2-7 from the line and that included some misses that had the opportunity to give the Lakers some needed cushion. In the big picture, the Lakers won anyway and overall LeBron’s play down the stretch was high. But, when you’re the best player the standard is high and I’d have really liked to have seen him more comfortable at the line.
- Something worth watching: Frank Vogel played 11 players at least 8 minutes in this game. This is a lot of guys to throw into a game and, considering it was a similar approach vs. the Raptors, I think this might be an emerging trend. I don’t have much comment on this right now, but keep an eye on whether this continues moving forward.
- We talked about Kuz’s bounce back game, but this was also true for Danny Green. After going scoreless vs. the Raptors, Green scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting, including 3-5 from behind the arc. Green again found himself in foul trouble, but played through it well enough over the course of the game and hit some needed baskets to keep the Lakers close when the Suns were bombing away successfully from behind the arc.
- Random stat: I mentioned the Suns hit 13-26 from 3 through the first three quarters, but they only went 3-12 from behind the arc in the final frame. Call it a regression to the mean or credit the Lakers defense. Either way, the Lakers needed them to cool off and those misses came right when the Lakers needed them.
That’s it for this one. I’ll have a game preview up for the Warriors later today.