No Suns fan wants to hear this, but this Lakers team is a miserable matchup for the Suns. They’ve never had a LeBron James stopper (mostly because there are about five of those in the NBA), and Anthony Davis is always liable for an explosion against the Suns. Add in that Ricky Rubio’s strong defense is mitigated a bit by the Lakers not playing a traditional point guard, and it’s a recipe for embarrassment.
That’s exactly what happened to open the game. Davis started 6-7 from the field for 14 points. With James running the show, it seemed like the Lakers could get any shot they wanted. James opened the game with four assists on the Lakers’ first 15 made field goals as well as 7 points of his own.
Los Angeles opened the game 15-17 from the field.
In the bench minutes, both teams stagnated, and the Suns couldn’t make up ground. Monty Williams rode the starters heavily, with Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker both playing all of the first quarter. No difference.
The Suns’ defense — the worst in the NBA over the past few weeks — is a problem. The best teams will kill them.
This is going to happen a few times tonight but anytime Booker ends up with LeBron in the post has to be automatic double for the Suns otherwise this is going to be long night for Phoenix pic.twitter.com/qpGu2nLi0E— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) January 2, 2020
The Lakers led, 43-17, after one.
The Suns went to a zone defense in the second to try to stop the bleeding, but to no avail. A veteran team like the Lakers is going to know what to do against a zone, and with the Lakers’ shooters getting hot as well, it made no difference.
LA went into the half shooting 6-15 from deep and 60 percent from the field overall. James put up 10 assists in the first half to turbo-charge the Lakers’ sharp ball movement. As a team, the Lakers put up a 21:5 assist to turnover ratio in the half.
I’m not sure if it counts as a run when you cut the lead from 35 to 28, but that’s what the Suns did early in the second quarter in response to their ugly first half.
A few minutes later, Kelly Oubre Jr. — continuing a stretch of efficient scoring — threw down another candidate for his best dunk of the season.
Rather than waving the white flag, Williams used the opportunity to further bring Ayton along as he gets back up to speed following his suspension and ankle sprain. In order to make the most of Ayton’s minutes, many of the starters stayed in the game for their normal rotation.
There was also another Tyler Johnson sighting, as Williams also cycled through most of the backup guards again to see if anyone popped.
Though at this point, few Suns fans were probably even watching.
Just not putting myself through any more of that tonight.— Rhett Reese (@RhettReese) January 2, 2020
Maybe they’re watching Rhett’s new movie, 6 Underground, on Netflix. (This post is not sponsored by Netflix, but all I can say is that movie was more entertaining than this game by a mile.)
Johnson scored four points in his first five minutes, including a fast-break layup that cut the Laker lead to fewer than 20 points for the first time since the first quarter. Lakers coach Frank Vogel called a timeout with 11:14 to go in the fourth.
The Suns’ run didn’t stop there. The next Vogel timeout came with 9:32 left, at which point the Suns had outscored the Lakers, 10-2, in the final period. Their lead was just 14.
Uh oh the Lakers lead is down to 14. It was once 36.— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) January 2, 2020
Most impressively, Johnson was a key factor in the run on both ends. His movement without the ball and on-ball defense were necessary energy for a Suns team that can sometimes play flat, especially when the second unit is in the game.
Around this point in the game, the Lakers announced Alex Caruso was out for the game with calf tightness. That put even more pressure on the Lakers to bring their stars back in the game if and when the Suns narrowed the gap to striking distance.
After an Elie Okobo and-1 with about 8 minutes to go, James and Davis finally checked back in. The Laker lead was just 12.
Rebounding has quietly become a strength for this Suns team since Ayton returned to the lineup, and it was again in Los Angeles. By hitting the offensive glass, the Suns not only gassed the Lakers’ stars, who believed they had sealed a win, but they controlled the tempo of the game and were able to find more efficient shots.
Soon after the Lakers’ stars returned to the lineup, Williams went back to Aron Baynes, whom he put onto James. The last time we saw this strategy was when Baynes defended Ben Simmons at home against the Sixers. James was unable to create space quite as well against Baynes’ size and length.
After a quick stint, Ayton came back onto the floor and the matchups flipped again. Ayton guarded Davis, while Mikal Bridges checked James. This versatility is becoming a strength for the Suns.
And just like that, Ricky Rubio collided with Avery Bradley chasing Bradley along the baseline, fell to the ground, and had to be helped off the court. Any injury to Rubio of course will be incredibly difficult for the Suns to weather.
im watching lakers broadcast and he slipped on wet spot— acommoncreeper (@acommoncreeper) January 2, 2020
James hit a three the next time down the floor, then the Suns turned it over on an entry pass to Ayton.
Moments later, Booker made a tough jumper from the free-throw line and was called for a technical foul for jarring with the officials asking for a foul call. This was his fourth straight 30-point game, two of which came in close losses. The frustration is understandable.
Booker’s on-court temper wasn’t talked about much while the Suns were losing a bunch of games, but it’s still a real issue for this team and Booker individually. He still hasn’t figured out the balance between working the referees and keeping his emotions in check. Years of being disrespected by fellow players, coaches and officials probably doesn’t help.
While Oubre worked inside, the Suns kept missing threes. Johnson, despite impressive energy after hardly playing the past month or so, didn’t have his legs under his jump shot and was 0-4 from deep in the game.
A battering-ram layup by James put the Lakers up 9 with about 2 minutes to go.
The Lakers never gave up the lead.