Column: Lakers send message: LeBron James and Co. are on the rise
They were only 10 minutes, but they were 10 spectacular minutes, 10 minutes that reminded other teams of the force they could encounter if they allow the Lakers to hang around these playoffs.
LeBron James was decisive.
He was explosive.
He was virtually unstoppable.
What was a close game at halftime opened up in a matter of minutes, the Lakers running out to a 109-95 victory and 2-1 series lead over the Phoenix Suns.
James wasn’t the best player on the court Thursday night, as that distinction went to Anthony Davis, who scored a game-high 34 points and collected 11 rebounds.
The Lakers took control of Game 3 against the Suns in the third quarter and held off a late Phoenix rally for a 109-95 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
The Lakers still didn’t look like a championship team, as they made only 25% of their three-pointers and committed 20 turnovers.
In the first Lakers playoff game at Staples Center in more than eight years, the most significant development was how James attacked the basket and scored 10 of his 21 points in the third quarter.
“He changed the whole game,” coach Frank Vogel said.
He can also reshape the entire postseason, continuing with Game 4 on Sunday at Staples Center.
This is the version of James that will be required if the Lakers are to have any chance of defending their championship won in the NBA’s bubble last fall.
He will have to deliver like this again and again and again if they are to win four consecutive series in which their opponents will have home-court advantage.
He will have to play games in which he has multiple stretches like this if they are to register the 17 postseason victories necessary to repeat as champions.
Highlights from the Lakers’ Game 3 playoff win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.
“He told me he’s still got another gear,” Davis said.
By their own admission, the Lakers didn’t play their cleanest of games.
“We were, quite frankly, terrible offensively in the first half,” Vogel said.
“We still have to do a better job of closing out games,” Davis said in a reference to how a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter was reduced to eight with 2:47 left.
What inspired optimism was what happened between the ugly start described by Vogel and the uncomfortable finish recalled by Davis.
The 36-year-old James, who is still dealing with the after-effects of a high right ankle sprain, turned back the clock.
“I wasn’t reading the game like I would like to in the first half,” James said. “Came back into the locker room, made some mental adjustments for me individually that I felt like would work for our team and we were able to spark a run in the third.”
With the Lakers emerging from halftime with a 43-40 advantage, James opened the third quarter by powering his way to the rim for an uncontested dunk. The next time down the court, he pulled up and sank a 12-foot jumper.
Two possessions later, James found Davis sailing down the lane for a two-handed dunk.
Like that, less than two minutes into the second half, the Lakers were leading 49-40.
The Suns missed six of their first seven shots in the quarter.
“That’s how we want to play, get stops and run,” Davis said.
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James drove to set up a basket underneath by Andre Drummond. James converted a couple of layups in transition.
And with less than six minutes remaining in the quarter, with the Suns’ defense slow to rotate, he turned the corner at the baseline and threw down a particularly violent dunk.
“Just making adjustments,” James said. “I was reading the game.”
The Lakers were ahead by as many as 17 points in the third quarter. They went into the final period with a 76-63 lead.
“Obviously, it’s been a rough year on me as far as physically with my ankle and dealing with that and still trying to get it back to where it was before the injury,” James said.
James continues to receive regular treatment on his ankle in hopes of recovering his pre-injury form.
“Until then,” he said, “my teammates will continue to hold me down.”
James’ final line was solid, but not out of this world: 21 points, nine assists, six rebounds and seven turnovers.
Davis’ performances in the last two games were especially valuable in this regard, the All-Star forward serving as the team’s primary offensive weapon as James plays his way back into shape.
Dennis Schroder also unburdened James by contributing 20 points.
The prospect of James and the Lakers playing like they did in the third quarter over more extended periods in a game should be a concern for other teams.
“If I was another team, I would want to play us early,” forward Jared Dudley said. “I would want to play when LeBron James is coming off of an ankle injury. We’re trying to find our chemistry. You think that we’re going to be better later or better now? I mean, the more chemistry and the more games, the stronger we get. We’re not going to get worse later on. We’re vets. So if I was a team, I’d want to play us right away.”
The Suns, now with an ailing leader in Chris Paul and his bruised right shoulder, have that opportunity. The Denver Nuggets, without high-scoring guard Jamal Murray, could, too.
If the Lakers can move past them, whomever they take on next won’t have the luxury of facing a disjointed team that plays uneven games. They’ll have to play the team that showed up in the third quarter on Thursday.
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