Most nights a game against a Western Conference foe means facing one of the league’s best teams, perhaps an all-star guard, sometimes two, and a team with firepower to test even the most competent defense.
The Lakers’ game Wednesday night did not offer such a challenge.
After beating the Phoenix Suns 131-113, the Lakers are no longer winless.
“It feels great, it’s a win, period,” LeBron James said. “… I think we got better tonight and we want to try to continue that going forward.”
Said Kyle Kuzma: “It’s kind of a win that we needed to get. Playing Denver [on Thursday] and a playoff team, potentially. Going to San Antonio, Minnesota. You just gotta get your wins when you can.”
Lance Stephenson led the Lakers with 23 points. He also had eight rebounds and eight assists, getting close to his first triple-double in more than four years.
The Suns kept the game tight throughout the first quarter and even led for most of the first three minutes. Heading into the second quarter, the Lakers led by only two points.
“I feel like we have a bad habit of feeling out how the other team is gonna come out and play rather than just playing our game immediately,” Lakers center JaVale McGee said. “We have a bad habit of getting hit in the mouth and retaliating rather than hitting them in the mouth first.”
That all changed in the second quarter.
“To start the game our defense was soft again,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “We need to get better at that. We need to start the game with the same mentality as we did the second quarter.”
The Lakers went on a 17-2 run to break the game open.
They had six steals in the second quarter and scored 15 points off nine Suns turnovers.
Then they really started to have fun. And nearly everyone got in on it.
By halftime, three Lakers had triple-doubles within their grasp: James with 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds; Lonzo Ball with eight points, four assists and three rebounds; and Stephenson with 12 points, six assists and four rebounds.
None of them got there, but had James played at all in the fourth quarter he surely would have. He finished with 19 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
Just before halftime, James wiggled past a Suns player and passed the ball to himself off the backboard for a score.
Moments later he intercepted a pass and attempted a half-court shot that barely missed.
The Lakers, who play the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night at Staples Center, opted to rest him in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach.
McGee made a three-point shot for only the second time in his career.
“It was a blast,” he said.
He scored 20 points in all. He took a second three-point shot later in the game, but that one missed and drew the ire of Walton, who doesn’t want McGee taking those kinds of shots.
Josh Hart, making his first start of the season, scored 15 points.
The game offered a respite for the Lakers, who faced three likely playoff teams in their first three games. Each game was within the Lakers’ grasp, but they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.
“We played against playoff teams,” McGee said. “Great playoff teams too. So for us to only be together for a couple of months, I feel like we’re jelling extremely well. When we get to that threshold of greatness that we can be at, I feel like we’re going to be unstoppable.”