If the Phoenix Suns had any notion that the 15-point deficit they faced against the Lakers heading into the fourth quarter was manageable, one man proved them wrong.
Naturally, it was Rajon Rondo.
Rondo delivered a season-high 23 points in a 125-100 win over the Suns on Monday night at Staples Center. He made nine of 13 shots and four of five three-pointers. All of his points came after the first quarter.
Rondo left the locker room without speaking to reporters, but his teammates and coach were happy to talk about his performance.
“They dared him to shoot,” LeBron James said. “They said they wanted him to beat us and he did that. He wasn’t hot. I think he missed — four shots. He missed four shots. He wasn’t hot. But he shot efficiently and it’s something that he works on every day … he knocked them down today with confidence.”
It started out as a sloppy night for the Lakers, who committed 16 turnovers, eight of them charged to James, who also finished with 17 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
The Lakers improved to 40-12. It’s the first time since the 2009-10 season, the last time the Lakers won a championship, that they have won 40 games before the All-Star break.
Rondo was part of a Lakers bench that offered performances crucial to the win.
“They were just in great pace, great rhythm,” James said. “Rondo from the beginning was taking all the looks he was given. Going underneath screen-and-rolls and was knocking down that trey ball and also getting into the paint. Dwight [Howard] controlled the glass, was spectacular, and everybody else just chipped in. It was a great performance by the bench.”
Coach Frank Vogel, who said there were no major injury issues heading into this game, played a nine-man rotation most of the night. Neither Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels nor Jared Dudley played until 4:48 remained in the game and the Lakers had a 24-point lead.
Vogel said after the game that he had planned to play Caruso sooner, but Rondo’s effectiveness delayed his playing time.
“He was terrific tonight,” Vogel said. “Really scoring the ball. It’s really about reading the defense, and if teams are gonna play him for the pass and force him to make shots, then he’s capable from the perimeter and he’s capable going to the basket.
“Reading that this is a team that’s gonna stay home on the roller, and we knew that going in. So the game plan for all ballhandlers is to attack the rim, make the big pick you up. Engage the big and if they don’t, finish. Rajon did a great job with that.”
The Lakers struggled to stop the Suns in the first quarter, the Suns taking advantage of open looks to shoot 58.8% and make five of nine three-point attempts. The Lakers, meanwhile, made only three of 10 threes and led by just one.
During the second quarter the Lakers were able to put some distance between themselves and Phoenix. That’s when Rondo began his scoring spree. He scored 15 points during that period, making all six shots he took, including three three-pointers. The Suns shot just 36.8% in the third quarter and made only two of eight threes as the Lakers began to blow it open.
“Second defensive rating tonight in the league so we’re getting back to our defensive ways,” Davis said. “We’ve been slipping in that area defensively. We want to make sure we get back to being who we are defensively.”
With 10:55 left in the game, the Suns’ Kelly Oubre Jr. swiped at Kyle Kuzma, causing the ball to jump out of Kuzma’s hands. But it tumbled into the basket somehow, leading Rondo, who had passed Kuzma the ball, to chuckle at their good fortune. The Lakers led by 18 points at the time, and the victory was soon in hand.
James — a two-time gold medalist and three-time Olympian — is among 44 players announced by USA Basketball on Monday as finalists for the team that will play in the Tokyo Games this summer. James played in 2004, 2008 and 2012, helping the U.S. win gold in his most recent two appearances.
Davis, Howard, Kuzma and JaVale McGee are finalists, also.
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