Lakers can’t match the Suns at the finish in loss on the road

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, center, drives between Suns forward Josh Okogie, left, and guard Grayson Allen.
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell drives between Suns forward Josh Okogie, left, and guard Grayson Allen during the first half Sunday.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The road through the Western Conference is a narrowing path and, ultimately, there will be room for the Lakers or the Suns. Not both.

Maybe because of the familiarity — Kevin Durant and LeBron James battling for parts of three decades, a Suns coaching staff that owns championship rings with the Lakers or an unconventional fifth meeting this season between the teams — Sunday’s game felt like it had extra heft.

Success or failure for these Pacific Division rivals won’t be judged in late February, particularly as both teams struggled to get (and stay) healthy for any meaningful stretch this season.


For 48 minutes Sunday, the Lakers and the Suns played a regular-season game that felt like it had actual stakes, both teams shortening their benches and letting their best players stay on the court to fight.

The swings in the 123-113 Lakers loss were wild. The Lakers trailed by as many as 20 in the first quarter as the Suns scored 45 points in the opening 12 minutes. No team this year had punished the Lakers’ defense like that in the first all season.

“Super slow start for us, offensively and defensively,” James said. “You give a team 45 points in a quarter, that’s always going to be a problem.”

Only four teams have scored more than 45 points in the first quarter this season.

“You never want to start the game off like that, obviously,” Austin Reaves said. “But it puts you in a tough situation where you almost have to play perfect the rest of the game.”

Thanks to James, D’Angelo Russell and a slow-to-find-rhythm Anthony Davis, the Lakers got to within two points in the third quarter and five in the fourth, but the reservoir of big shots just ran dry while the Suns continued to make theirs.

LeBron James scored 30 in his return, but coach Darvin Ham wasn’t happy with what he saw from the Lakers in a win over Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs.

Feb. 23, 2024

With a chance to cut the lead back to two early in the fourth, Russell ran to the corner in front of the Suns bench and got a wide-open look.


He missed.

Phoenix ran after collecting the rebound and Grayson Allen hit a corner three to cool things off.

Then, later in the fourth with the Lakers down six, James drove into traffic and saw his shot rim in and out. The Suns, on their next possession, converted another Allen three. The Lakers and Reaves had a chance to answer, but he missed a shot and Royce O’Neale, a player some in the Lakers’ front office coveted at the trade deadline, hit his sixth three of the game.

O’Neale and Allen combined to make 12 of 22 from three, more than making up for the slow-ish games from Devin Booker and Durant.

James scored 28 to go with 12 assists. Davis had 22 points and 14 rebounds, and Russell added 20 points and seven assists.

All five Suns starters had at least 18 points.

“We played some really good basketball, but their role players did a great job shooting the ball,” James said. “Royce O’Neale, Grayson Allen and those boys, they shot the heck out of the ball tonight and [Jusuf Nurkic] had a monster 20-20 game, pretty much. So, we did a pretty good job on their superstars. But that’s what good teams do. They have other guys step up when it’s timely.”

The Lakers took a season-low eight free throws against the Suns and Phoenix outrebounded the Lakers 14-3 on the offensive glass.


“We try to live in the paint and get to the line,” Davis said. “I’m not sure if it was just the refs missing it or they weren’t fouling. I felt I got fouled a couple of times. But that’s part of our identity, our DNA, is getting to the line and guys catching rhythms like that and then playing from there.”

Coach Darvin Ham didn’t hide his frustration with the officiating, saying he felt the Lakers were victims of an uneven whistle.

“I’m not one to use referees as excuses, as an excuse I should say,” Ham said. “But it’s becoming increasingly tough because of the inconsistency. I’m seeing our guys get the same contact on them as we’re supposedly committing. And the whistle is not being blown. And that’s something we focus on, trying to win the free-throw line every game. And so that’s tough. I’m telling my guys to drive downhill, we’re trying to … live in the paint. And you’re not getting calls. I see guys with their hands in our guys’ ribs or swinging, swiping at their heads, trying to block the shot, but not getting the ball, but getting a piece of the body. And it’s not being called, as simple as that.

“So we have to figure out ways to not let that be a problem, but it’s tough. Again, it’s frustrating when there’s so much inconsistency.”

The Lakers have now lost twice since winning six out of seven heading into the All-Star break. They play the Clippers on Wednesday.