Now. This is when it gets toughest, when the Lakers‘ problems are either tolerable or fatal.
With the clock ticking on their season and every game’s importance escalating, the Lakers needed to conquer a familiar rival, one that has dominated matchups between the two for more than two years.
Facing the Phoenix Suns, who the Lakers have defeated just once in their last nine meetings, the team was going to have to be close to its best, the mistakes meaning more as each possession took on extra weight.
You could feel that inside the building, the crowd murmuring when a turnover would lead to a layup or when a free throw would rim out. And that same crowd? It erupted when Anthony Davis played above the rim with force or when D’Angelo Russell hit a 3 or sliced to the basket.
And, when the horn sounded and the clock expired, the celebration felt earned, a big win at a big time, the Lakers beating the Suns 122-111.
Davis scored 27, Russell added 26 and Austin Reaves finished with 25 and 11 assists. A day after saying he wanted his team to live in the paint, Darvin Ham’s Lakers attempted 46 free throws.
It all came on the night when the Lakers changed directions in a fairly big way
Ham grinned as he hinted that, maybe, he had a change coming before the Lakers game Wednesday night.
“We got a little something up our sleeve tonight,” Ham said.
The little something turned out to be fairly major, Ham switching the Lakers’ starting lineup for the first time post trade deadline without injuries playing a factor.
Reaves moved into the first five after scoring a career-high 35 points in the Lakers’ win Sunday against the Magic, the two days off between games giving Ham and the coaching staff time to make the move.
It’s Reaves first start since Jan. 4. He’d scored at least 13 in each of his last eight games, while Malik Beasley, the player he replaced in the starting lineup, has struggled to shoot it consistently.
The change paid immediate returns, Reaves leading the Lakers with 10 first-quarter points. And in his shift off the bench, Beasley made a pair of 3s.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. Stay aggressive,” Ham said of his message to Beasley. “Do what you do. Keep competing on the defensive end. But don’t get discouraged, man.”
In Reaves, Ham said he has seen the second-year guard grow into a player worthy of an expanded role.
“I just think he’s maturing before our eyes as a high-level NBA player. We always saw the talent. We always saw the glimpses. Big moments where he played really, really huge for us. Now it’s just more on a consistent basis,” Ham said pregame. “He’s comfortable. He knows what spots he wants to get to. He understands when things are kinda off-balance for us offensively. He knows how to get to the line. He knows how to make big plays, passes. Scraps in there, draws charges. He just does a little bit of everything.”
Reaves opened the game guarding Chris Paul, a sign of the trust the Lakers have in him. Paul, though, was extra aggressive with Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton out for the Suns.
“He’s one of the few guys in the league that can control the refs, control the coaches, control the other team’s point guard, control the people that are handing out beer,” Russell said of Paul on Wednesday morning. “He’s a wizard when it comes to that. And I’ve always tried to take pride in seeing what other guys did to control the game at the point guard position. Some may score, some may keep their guys involved with just passing. He did a little bit of everything.”
Early in the game, the Lakers got mixed news around the league, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns returning and making two free throws in the final seconds of a win. Utah, though, lost at home against the Trail Blazers, giving the Lakers a chance to grab ground in their chase for a postseason berth. With the stakes as high as they are, the Lakers are experimenting at times when ideally their identity would be more pronounced.
“We’re mixing and matching the lineups; mixing and matching the personnel when it comes to the defensive schemes; finishing lineups — we’re figuring all that out,” Russell said after shootaround.