In what had the look and feel of a dress rehearsal for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns, 114-113, on Friday, bringing the preseason to a close for both teams.
For the Suns, it was an opportunity to test out some depth in the backcourt, especially after Chris Paul was ruled out an hour before tip off with right ankle soreness. Likewise, Dennis Schroder sat for the Lakers after injuring his ankle against Phoenix on Wednesday.
James and Davis each played 25 and 30 minutes, respectively, and both sat for the fourth quarter. Los Angeles head coach Frank Vogel has repeatedly stated his challenge early in the season will be to get the star duo game-ready without overdoing it after a short offseason.
With the regular season only days away, Vogel will have to hope he's got his rotation figured out as the Lakers look to defend their title.
LeBron James, SF, Los Angeles Lakers: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists
Anthony Davis, PF, Los Angeles Lakers: 35 points, 6 rebounds, 6-for-7 3FG
Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns: 27 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
Deandre Ayton, C Phoenix Suns: 12 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds
Horton-Tucker's Final Audition
Los Angeles shooting guard Talen Horton-Tucker was one of the unquestioned stars of the NBA preseason, but now that the regular season is upon the Lakers, it's worth wondering if he's done enough to lock up a spot in the rotation.
Friday's performance was his final opportunity to prove himself worthy and he didn't disappoint.
The second-year pro out of Iowa State finished with 12 points (5-for-8 FG) in 24 minutes after posting four points in eight minutes during the first half. Most impressively he didn't even flinch while going up against Phoenix's starters in a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter hitting a corner three after shaking his defender.
The guard's best moment came against a former Big 12 foe in Jevon Carter, who Horton-Tucker was able to brush off with a step-back for a mid-range bucket. It was a nice move against the Sun's backup point guard and the type of savvy play that could earn him some run in the Lakers' second unit.
“They were just telling me to keep it going,” Horton-Tucker said earlier this week when asked what he's hearing from the team. “Every time I’m on the court they’re just telling me to play free and do what I do. So just being able to have that support and confidence from those guys is a plus for me. It just tells me to go out and play my game and be free.”
Now he'll find out whether being true to himself will make him an NBA mainstay.
Even with Vogel planning to take it easy with James' and Davis' minutes to begin the year, that doesn't guarantee they'll go to Horton-Tucker.
Los Angeles seriously bulked up their bench during the offseason with the likes of Wesley Matthews to say little of Kyle Kuzma and Quinn Cook already pushing for an expanded role. Performing well in the preseason is certainly exciting, doing it during the regular season—for the defending champions, no less—will be a different beast.
Horton-Tucker has shown he can play. He'll find out how long of a leash that's earned him come Tuesday.
No Paul, No Problem For Phoenix
The Suns acquired Chris Paul this offseason to take the team from competitor to contender, but it's not a job he'll be able to do on his own.
At 35 years old, the electric point guard can still do plenty when he's on the floor. That also adds pressure on the Suns' backcourt to maintain a high-level of production when he's off it, as was the case on Friday. While Paul nursed an aggravated ankle, a combination of Jevon Carter, Devin Booker, Cameron Payne and Langston Galloway combined for 14 assists.
Carter, in particular, was especially effective with 12 points, four steals, six assists and just two turnovers. Paul was seen coaching up the third-year pro out of West Virginia on the sidelines during the game as the defensively-talented guard was able to show off his offense.
Phoenix head coach Monty Williams was asked by ESPN during the broadcast how he felt his team was handling the absence of Paul—who averaged 4.5 points and 7.0 assists in two preseason contests—and the coach didn't hesitate to point out how comfortable he was with the pace of the action.
That was mostly due to Carter and Booker, who split ball-handling duties and kept the Suns in rhythm all night.
As promising as the Paul acquisition is at the desert, the Suns' ability to excel when he's not on the floor may be the most crucial factor in determining how far the team can go. On Friday, they hung with the defending champions for 48 minutes.
Even in the preseason, that's something the team can build on moving forward.
The Suns begin the regular season Wednesday, Dec. 23 by hosting the Dallas Mavericks and emerging superstar Luka Doncic at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Lakers title defense opens at home against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 10 p.m. ET on TNT.