LOS ANGELES — Game two is too early to use the word "desperate," but you could feel the tension inside Crypto.com Arena Thursday night during the Lakers home opener. It's one thing to lose to the defending champion Nuggets on the road, but after three quarters the Lakers were down 12 at home to a Suns team without Devin Booker or Bradley Beal.
Through those three quarters, the Lakers were -17 in the 13 minutes LeBron James had rested. While this season's goal has been to keep LeBron closer to 30 minutes a night — meaning he should sit the first five minutes of the fourth — things were at the point where in just the second game coach Darvin Ham was ready to ditch the plan. Between the third and fourth, Ham asked LeBron about it.
"He asked me if, can I go the quarter?" LeBron said of the conversation. "I look at time and score, what was going on in the game, that was easy answer for myself. I know how much work I've put into to be able to play quarters or whatever the case may be, and I understand that we definitely have a system put in place but tonight calls for me to go outside of the box.”
LeBron played the entire fourth quarter, scoring 10 points in the frame including a couple of key lay-ups late, and the Lakers cranked up the defensive pressure on Kevin Durant. The result was the Lakers winning the fourth quarter 28-11 and the game 100-95.
Anthony Davis played the entire fourth next to LeBron, scoring 13 of his 30 in the quarter.
Bron & Brow combined for 23 points in the fourth & sealed the first home dub of the season. pic.twitter.com/7bjW9phuVr
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 27, 2023
As much as keeping his stars on the floor was key, so was a defensive shift by the Lakers not to let Kevin Durant beat them — he had 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting through three quarters.
"Obviously KD was drawing a ton of attention — crowding him trying to have a guy shifted over, what we call a flood, some people call it a tilt," Ham said of the strategy of throwing two players with length at Durant to make him give up the ball, or at least contest shots. "But like I said, making him see bodies. And then our activity behind that, guys shifted, denying him, mixing up different things off the ball and ultimately holding them to one possession."
Durant was held to nine points on 4-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter, and this is where the Suns missed Booker and Beal — the rest of the Suns were 1-of-9 shooting for two points in the fourth. As a team, the Suns had eight turnovers in the final quarter.
The Lakers won the fourth 28-11, and with that the game.
Mutual respect between two of the best from this generation. pic.twitter.com/23Cb1dTovz
— NBA (@NBA) October 27, 2023
It worked. It's also not sustainable if the goal is to keep LeBron's minutes down so he can stay healthy – LeBron averaged 35.5 minutes a game last season but missed 27 games due to injury. The season before, it was 37.2 minutes a night for LeBron, and he was out 26 games. The hope this season was fewer minutes a night would mean a more rested LeBron and him in more games, plus it would keep him — and Davis — healthy for a playoff run.
But by Game 2 that plan was getting in the way of winning, and we know which way Ham leaned. It's going to be a line Ham will have to walk all season.
Here are some other stories from around the NBA on Thursday: