The struggling Los Angeles Lakers found the perfect cure for what ails them—a matchup with the hapless Phoenix Suns.
Los Angeles snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 6-10 since LeBron James suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day with a 116-102 victory over the 11-41 Suns on Sunday at Staples Center. Phoenix has now lost eight in a row and is firmly in rebuild mode.
The trio of Brandon Ingram (22 points on 9-of-11 shooting), Ivica Zubac (24 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (24 points and six boards) led the way for the Lakers, while Devin Booker countered with 21 points and six assists for the Suns.
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James' injury draws the most headlines, but Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Tyson Chandler also missed Sunday's game, putting plenty of pressure on Ingram to carry the offense.
While it was just the Suns, the Lakers needed a win to both snap their losing streak and prevent themselves from falling even further behind in the race for a Western Conference playoff spot. The San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers are the Nos. 6-8 seeds and all won Sunday, meaning the Purple and Gold are still two games out of the postseason picture.
It is far from a foregone conclusion they will be in the playoffs just because they have James, and they are running out of time to make a move with 32 games remaining. They are also surely staring at some losses down the road with a schedule that includes two games each against the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, among other challenging foes.
The short-term onus falls on Ingram to live up to expectations as the No. 2 pick of the 2016 draft and keep the Lakers in position to make a run when James returns.
He entered play averaging a career-best 16.4 points a night and bolstered those totals with a ruthlessly efficient showing that saw him attack the basket off the bounce, take advantage of openings from mid-range and even connect from deep. The Duke product is emerging as a go-to scorer without James in the lineup and reached the 20-point barrier for the sixth time in January and third time in four games.
It comes just in time, as Kuzma was playing the role of No. 1 option without the King but missed all nine of his three-pointers the past two games on his way to 26 combined points. Mike Trudell of Spectrum SportsNet noted the sore hip that kept him out of Sunday's contest was particularly bothersome during Thursday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
If Ingram can maintain his recent scoring pace, he can take the pressure off Kuzma when the latter returns and give Los Angeles a plethora of offensive threats when the team is fully healthy.
While the early Kevin Durant comparisons have proven far too optimistic to this point, Ingram has a golden opportunity to prove he was worth the hype that accompanied him out of Duke. His potential first career trip to the playoffs is hanging in the balance.
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Los Angeles received a boost when it signed Chandler in November as a veteran with a championship pedigree who could provide leadership and interior defense.
While he has flashed an ability to control the glass and protect the rim, he isn't someone who can carry a frontcourt come playoff time at 36 years old. He also missed his second straight game, has played single-digit minutes in three of his last six appearances and is averaging just 3.8 points a night in a Lakers uniform.
Elsewhere, JaVale McGee has made strides after taking a backseat on the championship Warriors the past two seasons. He is posting 10.8 points and 6.9 rebounds a night and has been particularly impressive on the defensive side with 2.2 blocks per game. Opponents are shooting 11.9 percent worse within six feet of the basket and 4.9 percent worse from the field than their normal averages when he guards them, per NBA.com.
Still, this team had aspirations for a deep playoff run when it signed James, and an aging Chandler and someone who has never tallied more than 11.3 points per game in his career doesn't exactly spell championship frontcourt, even if McGee has played inspired basketball for stretches.
It doesn't necessarily need an individual superstar to neutralize those players, but depth is a necessity. The emergence of Zubac has provided just that with the season's stretch run on the horizon.
The 2016 second-round pick has largely been an afterthought in his two-plus seasons but has looked like a legitimate building block of late. After playing seven minutes in October and 40 in November, he flashed potential with three straight games in double figures in December and now has double figures in eight of 13 January games, including five in a row.
Zubac uses his athleticism in pick-and-rolls to slide past help defenders and position himself to receive passes for easy scores and has demonstrated soft touch around the rim with a career-best 60.7 percent shooting clip from the field.
What's more, his presence in the starting lineup allows head coach Luke Walton to utilize McGee's rim protection and athleticism off the bench when the team needs a spark.
Zubac provides another option on the offensive end for the injury-riddled team in the short term and additional depth for the daunting row of frontcourt playmakers awaiting a potential playoff run in the long term. He hinted at his overall potential again Sunday and appears to be getting even better with more experience.
Both teams play Tuesday, as the Lakers host the Philadelphia 76ers and the Suns are at the San Antonio Spurs.