THOUSAND PALMS, Calif. – Since the beginning of training camp, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham indicated that Thursday’s preseason finale against the Phoenix Suns was going to be a dress rehearsal for his team.
Ham was going to start his first unit, use a regular rotation through three quarters and try to cultivate some momentum entering Tuesday’s regular-season opener against the defending champion Nuggets in Denver. That the finale was against the Suns, one of the Lakers’ greatest challengers in the Western Conference, made it even more compelling.
“I’m one who loves competition,” Ham said pregame at Acrisure Arena. “I’m a fan first. It’s going to be fun. I look forward to these matchups.”
The game lost a lot of its sizzle when Suns stars Devin Booker (rest) and Bradley Beal (back) were ruled out shortly before tip-off, changing it from a much-anticipated preview to an inexact representation of what the Oct. 26 regular-season matchup in Los Angeles will look like.
Even so, the tilt provided the Lakers a final opportunity to flex their preseason progress and an attempt to defend a world-class scorer in Kevin Durant. The Lakers started the group that has begun each game the team has been at relatively full strength: Anthony Davis at center, LeBron James at power forward, Taurean Prince at small forward, Austin Reaves at shooting guard and D’Angelo Russell at point guard.
Despite missing two of their three best players, the Suns prevailed, 123-100. The Lakers pulled their starters midway through the third quarter with Los Angeles leading, 65-64. The Suns’ bench crushed the Lakers’ bench in the second half, 69-42.
Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel soreness), Gabe Vincent (lower back soreness) and Jalen Hood-Schifino (right knee contusion) each missed the contest. Vanderbilt and Hood-Schifino will be re-evaluated by the team’s medical staff on Friday. Vincent was held out for “precautionary reasons” again after practicing earlier in the week, Ham said. Vincent is expected to return for Tuesday’s opener in Denver, but it’s worth noting he has now missed the past three games due to his back injury.
“We’ve still got a couple of key pieces who were out in terms of Vando and Gabe,” Ham said postgame. “But I saw a lot of continuity – guys covering for one another defensively, competing at a high level, had a bunch of great looks, forced them into some tough shots, which they made a lot of them. Particularly KD, but that’s just KD being KD.”
Durant and James faced off in a game for the first time since Dec. 25, 2018, nearly five years ago. James held up his end of the bargain, scoring 19 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing three assists in 22 minutes. Durant scored 21 points on an effortless 8-for-14 shooting, though it’s worth mentioning he had more turnovers (four) than assists (two) and the Suns were outscored by five points in his 17 minutes.
“I mean, anytime you have someone as talented as KD on the court, it’s kind of, it’s cool for me to just watch in the moment,” Reaves said. “He hit the midrange fadeaway on me at the end of the half and then did the ‘too small’ (gesture). We were talking and he told (Jordan Ott), one of the (assistant) coaches, he was like, ‘Don’t have him guard me next week.’ I was like, ‘Bro, what am I supposed to do?’ … You gotta appreciate those moments because both of them won’t play forever.”
The Lakers mixed up their coverages against Durant, with Prince getting the primary assignment and James, Cam Reddish and Davis each taking multiple possessions against him. None were particularly effective, playing into the notion that the Lakers’ perimeter defense could struggle against elite wing scorer. They clearly miss Vanderbilt, their best perimeter defender, in matchups like this.
There were plenty of lowlights in Thursday’s loss. The Lakers were blown out in the second half, and their starters barely outplayed the Suns’ JV lineup without Beal and Booker. Los Angeles had more turnovers (22) than assists (19). Those miscues led to 30 points for the Suns, one of the big differences in the game. (Phoenix had 18 turnovers, but they only led to 16 LA points). The Suns also outrebounded the Lakers, 50-36, including a 15-6 advantage on the offensive glass. Phoenix beat LA at its own game, winning the free-throw battle, which is often in the Lakers’ favor given their star power and paint-first offensive approach.
With no Vincent or Hood-Schifino, the Lakers didn’t have a traditional primary ballhandler once James, Reaves and Russell sat. That, in part, was the driving force behind their offensive lulls.
“Basically that was by circumstances,” Ham said. “Having a funky lineup out there. What I told them is just, if you do find yourself in that type of position, you just gotta continue to compete, defend at a high level and you gotta share for one another and sacrifice on the offensive end. A lot of times we just had someone forcing unlucky plays that didn’t go our way.”
Los Angeles wrapped up the preseason with a 2-4 record overall and a 1-2 mark in the three games its projected starters played together. But unlike the past two preseasons, in which the Lakers went a combined 1-11 and started the respective regular seasons slower than expected, they weren’t fazed by their sub-.500 preseason record. In valuing the process over the results, the Lakers are confident that they are ready to pick up where they left off at the end of last season as one of the best teams in the league.
They have plenty of reasons to be encouraged. The offense, featuring improved 3-point shooting and a new 5-out scheme, has been lethal in the limited minutes with a regular rotation. Newcomers Prince, Vincent and Jaxson Hayes have fit in well. Davis is the same defensive monster he was last season; he blocked four shots in the first six minutes against the Suns and six shots overall.
BLOCKED BY AD ‼️
Anthony Davis has 5 blocks in the 1Q ⛔️
Watch Lakers/Suns LIVE on NBA TV: https://t.co/WfH3FJ6tZs pic.twitter.com/6qJyDQ26aY
— NBA (@NBA) October 20, 2023
James is still a one-man freight train in transition and capable of scoring against any defender or coverage. Russell just completed his best stretch in a Lakers uniform. Reaves is a reliable third option.
“A lot of good to extract from tonight’s game as well as the rest of the preseason,” Ham said. “I thought those guys had a good rhythm. A lot of weapons where we can just play stress-free basketball. No one has to try to force anything, put the team on their back or anything like that. Just coming down, reading the sets, reading the rhythm of the game and just playing basketball. Playing some good basketball.
“We continue to have to work at our transition defense and our defensive rebounding. Outside of that, I thought it was a really good performance by our main guys.”
Davis added: “A lot of good. Things to clean up: Transition, which has kinda been a thing for us that hurt us last year and a little bit of the preseason so far. I like the team we have, the spacing we have on the floor, the continuity that we have from last season, the new guys coming in and fitting in perfectly, getting acclimated very quickly. Defensive rebounds. I’ve liked how we looked from top to bottom.”
Ham wouldn’t confirm the fifth member of the opening-night starting lineup, throwing in some misdirection by mentioning the potential impact of Vanderbilt’s absence. For now, actions speak louder than words, and Prince has had the best preseason among the Lakers’ starting small forward candidates.
The Lakers will now travel back to Los Angeles and rest Friday before tentatively practicing Saturday, Sunday and Monday in anticipation of Tuesday’s emotional rematch with the Nuggets.
“We’re a very confident team,” Davis said of the team’s mindset entering the season. “We’re confident in our abilities and what we can do as a team. I think we’ve shown that a little bit in the preseason, just how good we can be.”
(Top photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)