‘The LeBron effect’ overshadowed by warning signs for Suns in loss to L.A.
PHOENIX — Ahead of the game later that night, Devin Booker was asked at shootaround on Wednesday about the tendency for a strong presence of Los Angeles Lakers fans in Phoenix.
“It’s happened to us a few times when the opposing fans have more fans in here than us, but that’s part of the situation we have been in the past few years,” the Suns’ franchise shooting guard said.
“They have an incredible fan base that travels very well and they find their way into every gym, I’d say, especially with the LeBron effect now.”
Ah, that effect. That’s why there was more of a crowd around Booker as he spoke to the media than for your usual shootaround, and why the opposing coach’s pregame availability was as packed as it’s been in the past three years.
On top of that aforementioned dedicated fanbase, the LeBron James effect played a role in the amount of not only Laker fans in attendance but fans in general.
Everyone in the house was there with James’ first outing in Phoenix donning the purple and yellow in mind, but Suns fans left the 131-113 loss concerned this might be another year where their team is one of the worst teams in the NBA.
After a competitive track meet of a first quarter, the Lakers outscored the Suns 44-24 in the second quarter.
That was highlighted by the same defensive errors and mistakes that were worrisome from Phoenix’s first three games of the season.
The Suns’ transition defense, in particular, allowed 15 fastbreak points in the second quarter. For a reference point of how shockingly awful that is, the Los Angeles Clippers gave up the most points in transition per game last year at 15.4.
What was almost certainly a point of emphasis for the Suns to correct the past two days produced lifeless basketball before the end of a first half in which the Lakers could have led by 30 with some made layups.
Within three minutes of the second half’s start, there clearly wasn’t going to be much of a response from the Suns. The Lakers had a 4-on-2 fastbreak that didn’t see Trevor Ariza, Booker or Deandre Ayton get back on defense.
Perhaps the worst part of it all was the Suns taking away from fans what should have been a very fun night of basketball.
The Lakers and Suns want to play fast and have the offensive talent to do so effectively. There, of course, was also seeing James himself.
The effect James has on building hype around a game was evident on two different sequences in the first half when Ayton was switched onto the four-time MVP.
Ayton denied James’ path to the basket on the first, making him settle for a step-back jumper, and James got to the rim on the second only to miss the layup.
Outside of James turning on his greatness for roughly 37 seconds at the close of the first half, it wasn’t much of a spectacle at all.
The shorthanded and previously winless Lakers without the suspended Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo didn’t even require that much of an inspiring performance from James to coast to their first victory of the season.
James was on cruise control through most of the game, still managing 19 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.
“To be honest, LeBron just was — I don’t even think he really was trying to go at us,” Ayton said. “There [were] a lot of moments where he could have really dropped his shoulder and really [tore] the rim down.
“I just think he was laid back, [letting] his young guys take over the game.”
By four minutes into the third quarter, there was no buzz left in the building and even less cheers than before for Lakers buckets, showing even their fans were out of it.
In the second half, the Suns shot 60 percent from the field but only scored four more points than the Lakers. Through three quarters, the Lakers had only two turnovers.
The harsh reality has set in that after a successful offseason for the Suns filled with forward momentum, they still might be a very bad basketball team.
They aren’t at a point in the schedule to have an easy recovery, either.
Nine of the team’s next 12 games are against playoff teams, the harsh reality of the Western Conference and an untimely couple of games in the East against Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.
The level of play from key veterans like Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Isaiah Canaan and Tyson Chandler has been less than inspiring, to say the least.
Head coach Igor Kokoskov has clearly been sticking by that group, though, not quite leeching from their planned minutes and giving them to the likes of Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren, who have all been better through four games.
That type of move points to a team still rebuilding. Well, Suns owner Robert Sarver said the team is done doing that, so we’re at a fork in the road here.
Rotations aside, there’s no denying whatever the minutes distribution is that the Suns look a whole lot like the team last season that won 21 games.
They’ve had three straight games lacking any feeling of competitiveness after halftime.
That, more than No. 23 in purple, more than Booker’s strained left hamstring and more than Ayton’s great moments mattered the most on a troubling night of Suns basketball.