The Los Angeles Lakers took an important step toward avoiding the play-in tournament.
Los Angeles defeated the Phoenix Suns 123-110 in Sunday's potential Western Conference playoff preview at Staples Center. Anthony Davis led the way in LeBron James' absence for the Purple and Gold, who improved to 38-30 and snapped their two-game losing streak in the process.
Solid showings from Cameron Payne and Chris Paul weren't enough for the Suns, who dropped to 48-20 overall but just 1-2 in their last three games.
Notable Player Stats
- Anthony Davis, F, LAL: 42 PTS, 12 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 3 BLK
- Alex Caruso, G, LAL: 17 PTS, 8 AST, 3 STL
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, G, LAL: 17 PTS, 3 STL, 4-of-9 3PT
- Cameron Payne, G, PHO: 24 PTS, 4-of-5 3PT
- Chris Paul, G, PHO: 13 PTS, 10 AST, 4 STL
- Devin Booker, G, PHO: 21 PTS, 6 REB
AD Sets the Tone as LeBron-Less Lakers Roll
It would be easy to casually dismiss the Lakers' issues and assume things will be fine come playoff time based on last season's championship, but their 2020-21 struggles are not a new development.
They were 15-23 in their previous 38 games and 1.5 games behind the Portland Trail Blazers in the race to avoid the play-in tournament. Throw in the absences of James and Dennis Schroder, and it was starting to look like the Purple and Gold will have their backs against the wall in must-win situations in the play-in tournament just to make the traditional eight-team field.
Although Kyle Kuzma (lower back tightness) was also out, Los Angeles came out with the urgency one would expect given its situation and jumped out to a commanding 12-point halftime lead.
Davis was unstoppable, extending his game to the outside and scoring on the blocks against an overmatched Phoenix frontcourt. That drew additional defenders in, which opened up outside shots for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and lanes for Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker as the Lakers played one of their best halves in weeks.
Phoenix tried a zone at times to throw doubles Davis' way, but even that didn't work as he dropped in fadeaways with feathery soft touch, established position down low and helped set up more looks for Caldwell-Pope and Ben McLemore.
McLemore in particular caught fire off the bench as the Lakers pulled away in the third, and he fittingly drilled a three in the final seconds of the quarter off a Davis double team to extend the advantage to 21 and all but put it away even though Phoenix cut into the lead down the stretch.
While there are still questions about James' status, AD looks healthy and ready to roll. If the Lakers get the version of the eight-time All-Star who took the floor Sunday, they might avoid the play-in tournament after all.
Suns Cool Off in Surprising Loss
It is fair to hold some doubts about the Suns' validity as championship contenders, considering they haven't been to the playoffs since the 2009-10 campaign, but they were hitting their stride and have two All-Stars in the backcourt in Paul and Devin Booker.
Their 6-1 stretch in their previous seven games included wins over Western Conference contenders in the Utah Jazz and L.A. Clippers. While it's not the same without James in the lineup, Sunday was another opportunity to make a statement against a playoff-bound club.
No statement was made, though, as the visitors struggled to create anything against the league's top-rated defense.
Deandre Ayton found himself in immediate foul trouble, the three-point shots didn't fall in the early going and the defense couldn't contain Davis on the other end. It was a recipe for a daunting deficit against a shorthanded Lakers squad the Suns frankly should have handled from the start.
There weren't many bright spots for Phoenix, but Payne did what he could off the bench while Booker partially made up for his poor shooting stretches by getting to the free-throw line. Jae Crowder also found his stroke from deep.
Yet the defense let the Suns down when their offense finally found its footing, as the Lakers reached the century mark within the first minute of the fourth and built a big enough lead to survive small bursts.
Phoenix is still essentially locked into the No. 1 or 2 seed in the Western Conference, so Sunday's blip isn't something to be too worried about given how well it has played of late. Still, the matchup with Davis looks like it will be a problem if these two teams meet up in the postseason.
Both teams are in action Tuesday when the Lakers host the New York Knicks and the Suns are at the Golden State Warriors.