EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ lows undo highs of Kevin Durant-LeBron James battle in loss to Lakers

Nov 11, 2023, 12:34 AM

LeBron James embraces Bradley Beal...

LeBron James embraces Bradley Beal of the Phoenix Suns in a Los Angeles Lakers win at Footprint Center on Nov. 10, 2023. (Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — There was certainly hype.

But if we can look past the Phoenix Suns’ initiation into the NBA In-Season Tournament, the very purple and teal court, the fact that security cleared out any humans in the front row of said court for LeBron James’ warmups before fans were even allowed into Footprint Center, the basketball reality was this:

The Suns (4-5) were in just the second game of having offseason addition Bradley Beal, and neither they nor the Los Angeles Lakers (4-5) had necessarily looked like potential contenders through eight games each.

Neither entered or left Friday as winning teams. Many things still must be figured out.

Each, however, got a few things sorted in a 122-119 Lakers victory, their second clutch-time win against the Suns to start this season.

What’s not to be figured out are the reasons the spotlight was on the game.

James pushed through a left leg tweak in the first quarter to score 32 points on 17 shots, with his six assists and command dictating a late momentum shift in a game Phoenix led the majority of.

“Trying to slow down LeBron without being sharp on your rotation to shooters is a problem,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “We wanted to take the ball out of his hands more but we didn’t cover the backside well enough.”

For Phoenix playing its fourth game in a row without Devin Booker, Kevin Durant fought off a rough shooting start to score 38 points, and Beal found his moments to shine with a 20-piece in the first half of his home debut as a Sun.

Of the questions that got somewhat answered, Beal and Durant took a step forward in playing off one another.

Beal closed with 24 points, including a late clutch-time bucket that followed an avalanche of offense by Durant. Jusuf Nurkic patched together another positive offensive night after his Chicago performance Wednesday, closing with 14 points and seven assists.

But Phoenix’s stretches of offensive ineptness cropped up again.

Durant scored 13 straight points in a three-minute stretch toward the end of the third quarter. In an if-you-had-to-guess-a-reason-why-you-would-guess-correctly situation, a 96-89  Suns lead to begin the fourth evaporated with Durant resting to give the Lakers their first lead since six minutes into the first quarter.

A Phoenix lineup with Eric Gordon, Jordan Goodwin and Beal looked listless, with funky spacing torpedoing the lead. Then Lakers small forward Cam Reddish, who has been in and out of the starting lineup so far this season, started churning up momentum.

Los Angeles’ run began with Reddish’s buzzer-beating trey to end the third quarter and would wrap at 14-0.

Durant entered again with 7:52 left and Phoenix trailing 103-98, and the issue of two points scored by Phoenix in six minutes of time to start the fourth would be alleviated by the Suns star immediately.

Durant’s pull-up three in semi-transition as the Lakers bench was motioning and screaming for doubles that never came were followed by a full-out blitz of him on the next play. Durant passed out of that and it ultimately ended with a Keita Bates-Diop and-one for Phoenix.

But Reddish’s four threes made over the final quarter-plus-a-second stood out — especially for a Lakers squad that entered the evening as the only NBA team shooting below 30% from deep on the year.

“They haven’t shot it great coming into tonight,” Beal said. “I think they caused us to scramble a little more and they got a lot of threes off of that. A lot of that comes from ‘Bron initiating.”

Vogel, too, was more concerned with those defensive flub-ups than the offensive drought.

“I mean, I got to look at the tape but I feel like our defensive breakdowns to start the fourth were more (a problem) … We didn’t guard,” he said.

What dictated the Suns’ advantage early on in the game was Beal, whose back injury saw him get slow-rolled against the Bulls on Wednesday. Against the Lakers, Beal scored nine quick points, beyond the arc and via a few cuts that saw him finish at the rim.

Beal hit 15 points halfway through the second quarter. By that point, a 48-34 lead for Phoenix bubbled from not only the stars but the spacing, with six total Suns to that point hitting a three-pointer.

Beal ended the first half the pretty way: isolating Christian Wood off a switch, crossing him, hesitating and blowing by him to slice between another Los Angeles defender, then dancing his way to the locker room.

The guard’s night included a put-back attempt that had him laying flat on his back after being fouled. Beal admitted his back injury was still stiffening at least while sitting on the bench.

“That’s what we got to deal with the next couple games,” he said. “It’s good, second game, to get my lungs a little more up under me, my legs a little up under me, be aggressive.”

Yet the contrast of the Suns’ teal and purple floor in their first in-season tournament game loss matched their best and worst of the night.

Vogel reminded his players it’s a young season still. And he reminded reporters that the team is far from complete with Beal still on a vague load restriction and Booker’s return from a calf injury apparently looming.

In fact, it was looming quite hard before the game.

Wearing a beanie, Booker went through his usual pregame warmup routine in the closing minutes before pregame introductions, when many fans and the many cameras were catching a glimpse.

It looked like a clear statement that he is close to a return.

“He makes this thing go,” Durant said after the game. “Without him, we can’t go where we want to go.”

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