Just a few feet away from the Lakers bench, three players stood. Two superstars beaming with pride, bumping their chests and shoulders against Kyle Kuzma, who smiled radiantly.
“I just told him, ‘Welcome back,’” Anthony Davis said. “… He came up huge for us, made some big shots, time after time. We were so happy for him.”
Said LeBron James: “Only a matter of time and it came at the right time. … It was great to have the Kuz that we know he’s capable of.”
Said Kuzma: “Every single game I felt rhythm and timing getting more and more back. I think tonight, just felt like how I usually play.”
Kuzma’s 23 points on nine-for-16 shooting, many of them at critical moments, helped the Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 123-115 on Tuesday. It gave the Lakers a glimpse of what they are like when Kuzma, who missed the first four games of the season, joins James and Davis as a scoring threat.
“He’s a heck of a scorer,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “It adds a lot of firepower that we didn’t have in the lineup when we first started.”
Only Davis scored more points than Kuzma, with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Davis was hit in the ribs during the game but played through it. He was unsure if he will play Wednesday against Golden State.
James scored 19 points with 11 assists and seven rebounds. The Lakers shot 53.7% and had 39 assists, their most in a road game since 1988. They have their best 10-game start since the 2010-11 season.
The Lakers won despite allowing the Suns to shoot better than 50% overall and from three-point range for most of the game, and despite Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes each scoring at least 20 points.
It wasn’t their best defensive performance, but the Lakers improved to 8-2, which is the best record in the West and second best in the NBA.
“We don’t want to lose two in a row, and the mind-set coming into the game was take care of what we need to take care of,” said Rajon Rondo, who scored five points with seven assists and six rebounds in his season debut. “And tonight, we didn’t do it the prettiest way but we got the W.”
The Suns challenged the Lakers early. They took a nine-point lead in the first quarter, but Kuzma quelled their momentum as the period ended. He went on a personal 6-0 run to bring the Lakers to within three by the start of the second.
Kuzma scored 13 points on five-of-seven shooting in the first quarter.
“He attacked early in transition,” James said. “He was really good using his Euros to his floaters, using his speed.”
The Lakers led at halftime and into the fourth quarter but they couldn’t pull away. They simply couldn’t stop the Suns’ hot shooting, especially from three-point range.
Phoenix battled back and led by two with 31/2 minutes left. Then, with 3:12 left in the game and a raucous crowd chanting for defense, James stepped back to hit a three that gave the Lakers a 114-113 lead.
Kuzma hit three-pointers on the next two possessions. The first followed an offensive rebound by Avery Bradley, and the second started with James, who passed it to Bradley, who found Kuzma to give the Lakers a seven-point lead. Phoenix (6-4) missed all six of its shots in the final three minutes.
Kuzma has long believed in his ability to be the Lakers’ third star. His image is on all of the Lakers’ marketing materials for this season, along with those of James and Davis. Vogel has called him the third-best player on the team. He got a late start because of a lingering stress reaction in his left ankle and has been working to find his rhythm and his shot.
“You don’t want to overreact to his ups and downs; that’s to be expected,” Vogel said. “I did talk to him maybe before yesterday’s practice, just about letting the game come and being patient.”
They all saw Kuzma do that Tuesday night, and they all expect it will be the first of many games like that.