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LeBron James and Russell Westbrook get little help in Lakers’ blowout loss to Suns

Lakers star LeBron James passes the ball to Trevor Ariza during first half of Tuesday's game.
Lakers star LeBron James passes the ball to Trevor Ariza during the first half of Tuesday’s 108-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

A mask covered Phoenix coach Monty Williams’ mouth, meaning you couldn’t see his jaw drop when he heard the question. But his eyes? They opened wide like a perfectly spaced court.

Minutes earlier, Lakers fill-in coach David Fizdale talked about how the Suns have become one of the NBA’s best teams by balancing star power with offensive balance — a team with guys who can get 50 points but are even more lethal when a handful score 20.

How, then, have the Suns pulled off what the Lakers have tried so hard to figure out early this season — getting players with clout like Chris Paul and Devin Booker and up-and-coming reputations like Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to function as one?

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To his chagrin, Jared Dudley wasn’t asked back as a Lakers player, but as a Dallas Mavericks assistant, he recognizes his future is in coaching.

“That’s not something I’ve ever even thought about. I can’t even answer that,” Williams said sounding a little stumped. “... I know who they are. I value them on a different level, not on their stardom. I value them on their commitment to the program. And to me, that means more than anything.”

Stardom is the Lakers’ program — the title banners and retired numbers positioned side-by-side in their home arena’s rafters as a constant reminder.

But stars aren’t getting it done, at least not this group with this team, Tuesday night at Staples Center another reminder that the Lakers simply aren’t in the class of the NBA’s best teams.

“They’re kicking ass,” Fizdale said of the Suns. “…They look good. We can’t make the mistakes we made tonight.”

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, center right, is pressured by Lakers guard Russell Westbrook during the first half.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Suns, at first slowly and then ferociously, picked the Lakers apart, asserting their dominance without much question in a 108-90 victory.

Even before Anthony Davis injured his knee Friday, the Lakers had been chasing an attitude that diverts from that, preaching teamwork over individualism. Coach Frank Vogel has gone as far to tell his team that the “open man” is more talented than anyone on the court, save for maybe LeBron James.

Now with Davis out, the Lakers are chasing the Suns’ balanced identity even more. Star or not, the Lakers need to start doing the things that equal winning basketball more often than not — by hanging on to the basketball and grabbing rebounds.

“The hard part is, like I told them, is just the switch that we have to make in ourselves that a lot of these guys were a lone star or a star next to a guy and had a bunch of role players doing all this crap for them already. And they could throw the ball away and the team could live with it,” Fizdale said before the game. “But now we got a bunch of stars and we can’t have a lot of guys turning the ball over and a lot of guys missing blockouts or expecting somebody else to do the dirty work. We all have to do it. We all have to be role players.”

If there’s an exception, it’s James — still bigger, stronger and more explosive than almost any other player in the game. Playing with plenty of pace and force, James barreled into the paint, picking up the interior scoring with Davis down.

But the fragility of the Lakers’ hopes was on full display Tuesday when James rolled his left ankle and slammed his hand repeatedly onto the court, like a wrestling referee counting a pin.

“I’ll be ready for the next game,” James said.

The crowd stayed mostly silent until James finally got up and shook off the injury during a timeout, a scene that’s been repeated throughout his career thanks to his famously strong ankles.

With James playing, the Lakers largely committed to the team’s game plan. They turned the ball over just once in the first quarter and fought the much-bigger Suns off the glass.

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Those two things hid so many of the Lakers’ other deficiencies. Their offensive talent without Davis is hard to ignore, especially with a handful of players including Malik Monk still in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

Talen Horton-Tucker, who missed the last week after being the first Laker to enter the protocols, returned and started. But he struggled, making just one of 13 shots. Isaiah Thomas, one of the replacement players the Lakers signed, was just as bad, shooting one for 11.

“Really, today is my first official day,” Horton-Tucker said. “Just trying to get back.”

Trevor Ariza, playing in his second game this season, saw his minutes limit increased and looked like a player who should complement the Lakers once whole.


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