Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, DeAndre Ayton
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
Suns: Frank Kaminsky (out); Abdel Nader (out); Dario Saric (out); Out due to Health & Safety Protocols: NONE
Lakers: LeBron James (probable); Trevor Ariza (probable); Anthony Davis (out); Kendrick Nunn (out); Out due to Health & Safety Protocols: Malik Monk; Avery Bradley; Austin Reaves; Kent Bazemore
In this very space a couple of days ago, we talked about the straightforward gameplan that the almost comically shorthanded Lakers needed to employ against the Bulls in Chicago:
Get the game in the books, and get home no less healthy than when you tipped off. Ideally LeBron and Russ could provide enough to squeeze past a Bull team playing without Zach LaVine, but the top priority is to get home safe.
Now, if we set aside the fact that the Lakers had to leave head coach Frank Vogel and Kent Bazemore in Chicago for Protocol Reasons, and the fact that, prior to that matchup, we learned that AD will be absent for the next month, they just about got there.
The Lakers were (understandably) sloppy in the first quarter, though, and despite just two points from LeBron, they did enough to stay within six. After that brutal first period (3-of-11 shooting), LeBron and Russ found their stride. With controlled aggression, they got into the lane to power the Lakers (along with Carmelo and IT, the four combined for 29, on 12-of-19 shooting, and 9 assists) to a 37-point second quarter. Despite a 10-2 turnover disadvantage and just four first half free throw attempts to the Bulls’ 13, the Lakers went into the break down just two.
After the break, with neither side able to hit much of anything, LeBron stepped up and shouldered load. He poured in 12 in the third quarter to stake the Lakers a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Their fourth quarter effort, however, which included a combined 21 from LeBron, Russ and Melo, was undone by a total lack of scoring support (DeAndre Jordan and Rondo, with five combined points, were the only other fourth quarter scorers), five turnovers and ten personal fouls, which resulted in eleven free throw attempts, of which the Bulls made ten.
In the end, thanks to the efforts of a four ex-Agelenos – Compton’s (and USC’s) DeMar DeRozan (38 points without making a 3-pointer; 11-of-24; 16-of-17 from the free throw line, a terrorizing 19 points in the 4th quarter), another ex-Trojan, Nikola Vucevic (19 and 13 rebounds), and former Lakers Lonzo Ball (19, 4 and 4) and Alex Caruso (17 and 9 rebounds) – the Bulls had enough to take over down the stretch and secure a five-point win.
Under the circumstances, the Lakers put forth a more than respectable performance. LeBron maintained his post-Detroit dustup form, dominating in the lane, making 11 of 21 shots for 31 points, which he paired with 14 rebounds and 6 assists. Russ stuffed the box score (9 rebounds and 8 assists) and was fairly efficient as a scorer, hitting for 20, on 9-of-19. We should note that he did miss four of six free throws and turn the ball over six times. Meanwhile, Carmelo (21 points, 5-of-12 on 3-pointers, and 5 rebounds) provided the spacing and scoring punch that’s so desperately need from him.
Of course, on the road, with more than half of your team missing, against a talented and rested (the Bulls’ two previous games had been postponed) opponent, you simply need a little something extra. Isaiah Thomas had a decent showing in his second game back, with 13 points on 11 shots in 32 minutes. However, the Laker simply did not have any other “extra” to give.
A bit of good news from Sunday is that not only did Trevor Ariza make it back onto the floor — albeit in a limited role (15 minutes, 1-for-1, 3 points, 2 assists) — he looked comfortable, and later confirmed that he felt good. It was always going to be vital that Ariza’s return go smoothly. However, with COVID taking such a toll on the roster, a lot is going to be asked of Ariza in very short order. In other news that refreshingly falls on the positive side of the ledger, both Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker have cleared Health & Safety Protocols and should be available to start tonight against the Suns tonight. Suffice it to say, the Lakers need all the help they can get.
The Suns are simply a juggernaut. After starting the season 1-3 (that one win coming at Staples, over the Lakers), the Suns have won 23 of 25 games. Interestingly, their two losses since the opening week of the season have come in California… No. The Lakers are in big, big trouble.
An absolute buzzsaw of an outfit, the Suns are coming off of a 31-point pasting of the Hornets in Phoenix on Sunday, in which just one of their guys spent even half an hour on the floor (Mikal Bridges; 30 minutes, 25 seconds), no one topped 16 points (though nine guys had at least 11), six guys made at least two 3-pointers (five made at least 40% of their attempts), five guys had at least six rebounds (DeAndre Ayton led the way with 15), four (including three starters) handed out at least five assists, and seven of eight guys who logged at least twenty minutes had no more than one turnover. Three days prior, they’d notched a 20-point win over the Wizards that was eerily similar, if marginally less dominant.
There are really no nits to pick with this group right now. Chris Paul, once again, will finish top-six in MVP voting. Devin Booker is All-NBA. DeAndre Ayton remains a hilariously efficient inside force. Mikal Bridges is a quintessential 3-and-D guy. And Jae Crowder combines enough of the personalities of each to be a perfect binder.
Not only does coach Monty Williams know what his best lineup is, he’s got the resources to not skip a beat when a key piece is missing. Ayton’s out for eight games? Plug in JaVale. Devin Booker’s hamstring costs him seven? Landry Shamet is a more than capable stopgap. And, when they’re at full strength, as they are now – with NO ONE in Health & Safety Protocols, and no one more significant than Frank Kaminsky (10.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in nine games this season) missing – dealing with that starting unit, with McGee, Shamet, Cam Johnson and Cam Payne backing them up is a hell of a tall order.
What we said about the Lakers prior to the game in Chicago – basically, “survive and ensure no further damage to the roster” – largely applies here. Sure, a team with LeBron, Russ, and a veteran supporting cast that’s returning to health always has a chance. That being said, it’s tough to build a legitimate case for why this Laker team right now should best the reigning Western Conference champions at the peak of their powers.
There’s going to come a day soon when we’re no longer pre-justifying losses and toasting moral victories. In meantime, we’ll do well to maintain a reasonable grasp on reality.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm Pacific start time on TNT.