Los Angeles Lakers striker Anthony Davis (left) and LeBron James (striker) watch from the sideline during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, March 21, 2021 in Phoenix . (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers Center Montrezl Harrell (15) shoots Phoenix Suns striker Abdel Nader (11) in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers security guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) drives Deandre Ayton (22) and the Phoenix Suns Center in Phoenix for the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 21, 2021 Security guard Devin Booker (1) passes by. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
The Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell shoots past Mikal Bridges, 25, the Phoenix Suns striker in the second half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris (center) shoots over Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Markieff Morris (88), Los Angeles Lakers forward, during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers security guard Talen Horton-Tucker drives past Mikal Bridges, 25, of Phoenix Sun in Phoenix in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 21, 2021. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) drives past Phoenix Sun’s Mikal Bridges (25) in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris (left) races on Phoenix Suns forward Abdel Nader (11) in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday March 21, 2021 in Phoenix. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri)
The final month of the Lakers season has felt like a MacGyver-style operation at times, using the tools they need to survive.
On Sunday evening, some promising tools popped up: Montrezl Harrell’s buns and putbacks; Dennis Schröder’s Speed and Pressure; Talen Horton-Tucker’s clever drive and finish. It could always be worse.
But without their most prolific and versatile player, surviving in the unforgiving wilderness of the Western Conference will be a much more difficult prospect.
In their first game since LeBron James suffered an ankle sprain that will likely keep him out of the way for weeks. The Lakers (28-15) scratched but failed to beat Phoenix in a 111-94 loss at the Talking Stick Arena. Technically speaking, the Suns (28-13) are only one place ahead of the overall standings, but are now outstripping their rivals in the division who will play without their stars for the foreseeable future. Anthony Davis has been absent for over a month.
Coach Frank Vogel remained optimistic despite the difficult circumstances under which the defending champions are facing a challenging situation.
« We didn’t shoot the ball well, but I thought we were playing at a very high level, » he said. « It will take a little while to adjust and figure out where the footage is coming from and what our new identity will look like. »
It will certainly not look like the team that subdued the suns at full speed without any problems in the preseason.
The difference was partly explained by Phoenix’s All-Stars pair: Devin Booker had 26 points for the team lead (DeAndre Ayton also had 26 points) and fired a dagger-3-pointer three minutes before the end of the game while Chris Paul had a team-best 13 assists in a triple-double attempt (11 points, 10 rebounds). Paul, in particular, added a defensive threat to his typical role as floor general by adding two steals and blocks during an important period in the fourth quarter when the Lakers admirably reduced the lead to seven points.
But the Lakers aren’t looking for moral victories. They are looking for actual victories. A sloppy night of shooting, especially a 5 for 25 mark from 3 point range.
Harrell led the effort with 23 points and 10 rebounds from the bench. Schröder had 22 points while Horton-Tucker had 17. The Lakers followed with 18 points.
Schröder indicated that a formula for success could be found if you bring the pace up to speed.
« I think like we played with them on the pitch before, now it’s the other way around, I think, » he said. “I think we have to move the ball, we have to play faster. We have to get scratchy on the defensive. And yes, I mean, anyone who gets on the ground needs to be confident of putting down the shot or affecting the game on the defensive. »
It hurt a little that Paul, one of James’ close friends in the league, passed the milestone James hit every night. He was only the sixth man to have 10,000 assists in NBA history, joining John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson. He had the match ball tucked under his arm during his press conference after the game. Paul’s closest active pursuer is James (9,669), who certainly can’t gain ground with the hiking shoe he’s currently wearing.
On the other hand, the way Paul scored 10,000 stung more than the fact that he had: he tossed Ayton a dime for a big break when the Lakers defense frustrated over their shoulders sagged
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Although Phoenix coach Monty Williams had previously preached caution to underestimate the Lakers without underestimating their stars – « LA is still the champion, » he said playfully – the gap between the teams was a 10-2 -Easy to recognize rally at the beginning. The Lakers never led.
The question became less of whether the Lakers can keep up to second-placed Phoenix without James or Davis (they can’t) than how far they will fall into their shadows in the crowded Western Conference rankings. They kept third place even after losing, but the Clippers are only one game behind. The San Antonio Spurs, currently in seventh place for a play-in game, have only two fewer losses (17) than the Lakers.
One of the areas the Lakers needed their missing players the most was sheer size, as they struggled to argue at the 7-foot-250 Ayton as it plowed through the paint. As defenders like Ketavious, Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso were reduced to simply tarnishing the earlier first choice – and sometimes that didn’t even work.
But it wasn’t an effort without merit: The Lakers didn’t even turn the ball in the first quarter and kept a pretty tight pace. At the beginning of the second round it was a close game with 33:31.
Against Tuesday’s New Orleans Pelicans, they have something to build on, even if it’s a humble starting point.
« It will take a long time, » said Harrell. « It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. We lost LeBron in a tough back-to-back game last night, man, so we’re still studying. »
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