The closing minutes of Wednesday’s preseason game, as Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker helped put the finishing touches on a 112-107 win over the Phoenix Suns, showed that the Lakers don’t always need their superstars.
But the first half in which LeBron James and Anthony Davis stretched their legs for the first time was a reminder that it’s certainly more comforting to the Lakers to have them.
L.A.’s top company men finally took the court on Wednesday night in Phoenix, with a modest but reassuring first-half appearance that showed they are on track to finding their regular-season form. James scored 11 points, while Davis scored 10.
As anticipated, it was light work for James and Davis, who the organization has slow-played during an unusually short offseason. It’s been just 65 days since the Lakers won the 2020 title over the Miami Heat – against the Suns, James played just under 15 minutes while Davis played 17½.
James had tentative moments, lacking his characteristic burst and speed just two weeks ahead of his 36th birthday. But when he checked in for the second quarter, he hit a pair of jumpers with an assist to Marc Gasol sandwiched in between – looking more like the Finals MVP he was during the title run.
Davis took only four shots, saying afterward that he was worried that his conditioning wouldn’t be intact in his first in-game action. He added a blocked shot and a steal.
“You can try to get in shape all you want, but there’s nothing like getting in basketball shape, in game shape,” Davis said. “So, I was kind of hesitant about that, but I felt fine. I could have played more. I’m probably going to play more Friday.”
The preseason finale in Phoenix is expected to be the Lakers’ regular-season “dress rehearsal,” playing most players as close to their normal minutes as possible.
The Lakers’ top priority this preseason is to escape healthy, but there was a small setback when Dennis Schröder turned his ankle during the third quarter and did not return. Alex Caruso also missed his second consecutive game with hip soreness, though Coach Frank Vogel anticipated it would not be a long-term issue. Both still could play on Friday.
Said Schröder of his ankle: “I think it’s nothing to worry about.”
Kuzma and Horton-Tucker again highlighted the late action: The two leading scorers of the preseason for the Lakers were also the two highest scorers in the game as Kuzma had 23 points and Horton-Tucker had 18. The Lakers outscored the Suns 43-24 in the fourth quarter.
To his teammates and coach, Kuzma’s performances this preseason represent the fruits of his labors through the last two months: He was 4 for 8 from 3-point range, which he said was a point of focus in his exit meeting after last season with Vogel.
“The thing that sticks out is how hard he works, and when you see a guy work that hard, you’re not surprised when they have success on the court,” Vogel said. “And he’s playing at a high level, he’s playing with confidence. He’s really not forcing any action. He’s getting his shots within the rhythm of the offense, and you have to honor him.”
It’s the Lakers’ first road trip experience under the new COVID-19 health protocols, preparing them for a regular season in which they face some Western Conference opponents in consecutive games. Vogel said he stayed in on Tuesday night after the team flew in, while Davis said the team bonded by playing cards and eating at NBA-approved restaurants (which have to meet certain health standards and be closed off to the general public).
“That’s gonna be a little different, kind of gearing up for a little playoff trip,” Davis said. “We’re still trying to keep our chemistry the way it’s been. … That chemistry is already there, messing with each other and it’s all pure and natural. We all kind of clicked from Day One, to be honest.”