LAS VEGAS — Just 20 minutes before unveiling a new small-ball starting lineup, the Lakers surprisingly announced their small-ball center would be sitting out Wednesday night.
But even without Anthony Davis manning the middle, his two counterparts played lively ball in the Lakers’ 119-115 preseason loss to the Phoenix Suns
LeBron James had 23 points and Russell Westbrook had 12 points against the Suns, a team that beat them in all four meetings last season. The reason for optimism, however, wasn’t so much in the result as the energetic play of the Lakers’ top two stars on the floor, blazing paths to the rim in a wide-open offense with plenty of room to drive.
A far cry from his 0-for-7 shooting debut in their preseason opener on Monday, James reached his total in just over 17 minutes, hitting eight of his first nine attempts from the field. That included three 3-pointers, as well as leaning finger rolls while contorting his body in midair. That translated to defense, too, where James raced behind Mikal Bridges for a chase-down block in the first quarter.
What made it possible, it seemed, was the spacing of starting Wenyen Gabriel at center in place of Davis, who missed the game out of precaution with lower back tightness. With a small-ball lineup, the Lakers found plenty of ways to thrive and led 69-62 at the half – the second straight game they’ve led in the relevant portion. James did not play in the second half.
That was true for Westbrook early: The point guard sped out of the gates for an end-to-end layup on the Lakers’ first possession. He finished the first quarter with reasonable efficiency and 11 points, but he lost steam as the game went on, finishing 4 for 12 from the field.
Other standouts included Kendrick Nunn, who finished with 21 points in a second-half flourish despite getting replaced in the starting lineup. Austin Reaves cracked the starting lineup (along with Patrick Beverley) and responded with eight first-half assists, threading clever passes into the post, while also spraying out to shooters on the perimeter.
A very obvious shortcoming, again, was on the glass: The Suns plucked 16 offensive rebounds against the undersized Lakers. While the Lakers adjusted in the second quarter to gang-rebound more, they could never quite keep up especially after
It’s unclear how exactly Coach Darvin Ham wants to use the small-ball lineup, especially since two traditional centers are on L.A.’s roster. But he noted that every player in the group can guard at least three positions, making it feasible defensively, especially when it comes to switching.
“All of those guys being able to space and create room so that Russ has driving lanes, Bron has driving lanes, A.D. can be comfortable in the post,” Ham said. “If someone crowds him and tries to double-team, guys on the backside can knock down shots and make a play off the dribble.”
As for Davis’ role in the lineup, fans will have to wait: Ham had already planned to limit Davis’ minutes with his lower back tightness, which has been bothering him since at least last weekend before he was eventually ruled out altogether. James, Westbrook and Beverley are not expected to play on the second night of the Lakers’ two-game Vegas swing.
Ham has called Davis’ health “the most important factor” in the Lakers’ success this season: The 29-year-old played in just 76 of 154 possible regular-season games the last two years. With the league steadily becoming more perimeter-oriented, even among centers like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, Ham said he believes Davis can physically compete with most fives in the league – he just has to suit up.
“Some of our best lineups are going to entail him being at ‘the 5’ but what that looks like, I think it looks like just as much perimeter basketball as it does interior basketball,” Ham said. “For him to be available and us take our time with him and slowly ramp his minutes up, I think it has everything to do with him putting the work in with our performance team and not so much preparing him to bang it out with certain individuals around the league.”
Aside from Davis, the Lakers were also playing without Lonnie Walker IV (ankle), Troy Brown Jr. (back) and Dennis Schröder (visa). Of the trio, Ham said he expected Walker is most likely to play Thursday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.