Following a brutal road trip that saw them drop two straight and suffer a COVID-19 outbreak that sent several players and staff members into health and safety protocols, the Lakers were looking to get back on track at home against the Phoenix Suns in a battle of the last two Western Conference champions. But despite LeBron James’ best efforts, the Lakers couldn’t keep up with an elite Suns squad, and fell 108-88 in an ugly, forgettable loss.
The defeat dropped the Lakers back to .500, as L.A. is now 16-16 on the season after losing their last three games.
James did just about all his nearly-37-year-old body would allow, finishing with a team-high 34 points while shouldering a bigger load than he’s used to on defense with Anthony Davis out, Dwight Howard was held out in his first game back from health and safety protocols, and DeAndre Jordan continued to show his age on that end of the court.
As the shorthanded Lakers struggled to contain Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll mastery or Devin Booker’s drive-and-kick aggression, James almost singlehandedly kept the purple and gold in the game during the first half. The King had 19 points at the break as he was tasked with both initiating the offense and trying to contain DeAndre Ayton (19 points, 9-11 shooting) on defense.
Both teams struggled to shoot the ball all night long, each finishing under 50% from the field and under 30% from three-point range. Russell Westbrook finished with a solid 20 points on 10-20 shooting, and Trevor Ariza went 4-4 from the field with 12 points in his return to Staples Center as a Laker, but nobody else scored in double figures for the Lakers while the Suns had seven scorers in double figures, led by Booker with 24.
And although the Lakers’ own COVID-19 issues appear to be subsiding a bit, they still were without Avery Bradley, Austin Reaves, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore, as well as head coach Frank Vogel and lead assistant Phil Handy. They’re also without Davis for several weeks after the star big man sustained an MCL sprain in Minnesota on Friday.
Those absences were felt especially hard on Tuesday. Isaiah Thomas, in his third game back with the team after being signed to a 10-day contract via hardship exemption, finished 1-11 from the field. Talen Horton-Tucker, also making his return from health and safety protocols, finished an even worse 1-13. The two combined to go 0-14 from beyond the 3-point line.
The Lakers’ depth got even thinner when Carmelo Anthony was ejected midway through the third quarter with his second technical. Anthony was given his first technical for yelling something at Jae Crowder, and got his second when he got upset at an official after Crowder collided with him on a three-point attempt but was not called for a foul. Anthony finished with just 7 points on 2-7 shooting.
Crowder nearly helped get another star Lakers forward to head to the locker room soon after Anthony was tossed, when LeBron James landed awkwardly on Crowder’s foot on a layup attempt and twisted his ankle hard. James stayed in the game despite being in obvious pain, and was able to finish out the night.
LeBron says it's hard to judge how the Lakers stack up against the Suns right now because "they are at full strength and we're not."— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 22, 2021
The Lakers will have one more tune-up before their marquee Christmas Day matchup with the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. They’ll play the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday in what will be their final game at Staples Center before it’s officially renamed Crypto.com Arena on Christmas. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PT on Spectrum Sportsnet.