That was some early December game.
Whatever you thought of the In-Season Tournament coming into the year, it’s been a resounding success with Tuesday’s game being the best of the bunch yet. For the third time this season, the Lakers and Suns battled out a close game that, for the third time this season, saw the Lakers come out ahead.
This game was the closest of the three, had a bit of controversy mixed in late and felt every bit like a playoff game. That alone should feel like a success for the NBA as no regular season game in December outside of Christmas Day games has felt like this.
Let’s grade the win. As always, grades are based on expectations for each player. A “B” grade represents the average performance for that player.
30 minutes, 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 0-4 FG, 0-2 3PT, 4-4 FT, -7
Offensively, it was a tough game for Reddish, which was indicative of the night as a whole for the Lakers. He also was in quite the tussle with Devin Booker throughout the game. The team having a number of wings they can throw at players is a luxury they’ve basically never been afforded in the LeBron era, so it’s a welcome sight.
Reddish held his own on that end. Booker never got into rhythm and while Jarred Vanderbilt had a big role in that, it was Reddish who played twice as many minutes. So, as bad as he may have been offensively, he gets kudos for his defense.
40 minutes, 31 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 12-25 FG, 2-4 3PT, 5-6 FT, +12
It’s really hard to describe or contextualize what LeBron is doing. If he was doing this at 21 years old, it’d be worth marveling. But he’s doing this IN HIS 21ST YEAR. This is not normal. We will never see this again.
LeBron took over the game in the fourth quarter on Tuesday to make sure the Lakers made it to Las Vegas. He manipulated the defense late to get the matchups he wanted. Clearly, he was treating it as a big game and he showed up like it was a big game, too.
39 minutes, 27 points, 15 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, 10-26 FG, 7-8 FT, -1
After a really great first half where he had 20 points on 8-16 shooting, he struggled a lot in the second half with a number of those misses coming at the rim. He remained aggressive, he just missed shots.
But no matter how good, bad, engaged or disengaged AD has been offensively this year, his defensive effort hasn’t wavered. This possession pretty much encapsulates how impressive and special he is on that end of the floor.
Great defense from the Lakers here. Suns go with Veer action, P&R into a pindown for Booker. Prince fights over, AD switches. Good contain, showing early help. Switch and recover, multiple efforts were there. pic.twitter.com/c4GaKlclmS— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) December 6, 2023
There is not a better defensive player in the league. Full stop.
27 minutes, 5 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 2-6 FG, 0-2 3PT, 1-2 FT, -12
Prince is on borrowed time in the starting lineup and Vando made it pretty clear how much of an improvement he is as a wing on Tuesday. The offense has long been a struggle for Prince and if he isn’t providing anything on that end and is worse defensively than Vanderbilt, there isn’t any case to start him.
Having said that, I will give him credit for what he did defensively. He did not stop Kevin Durant, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Countless shots from Durant featured a hand in the face from Prince, which is about all you can do.
24 minutes, 8 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 3-11 FG, 2-6 3PT, -7
This is back-to-back off nights for D’Lo, who is just 7-21 from the field and 3-11 from the 3-point line in his last two games. Against Houston, he made up for it with his defense, but that was not the case against Phoenix.
I will continue to commend Russell for finding ways to impact the game without scoring. His defensive effort level wasn’t bad on Tuesday and he had five assists. But the Lakers need more scoring.
8 minutes, 3 points, 1 assist, 1-2 FG, 1-2 3PT, -2
It was very interesting that Max Christie was the first player off the bench for the Lakers in this one. It was also very interesting he ultimately only played four minutes in each half.
This has been the best stretch of Christie’s short career — and yes, that comes after I said I was losing some confidence in him — and he deserves the playing time he’s been getting. But he’s also the easily and most likely candidate to see his minutes decrease with everyone returning to health.
What I’ll say is Christie has found a nice groove on both ends of the floor with these consistent minutes. Calls for him to enter the starting lineup for Cam Reddish are very premature. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, he wasn’t even in the rotation.
Let Christie simply have this run of play where he figures some things out without thrusting him back into the starting lineup.
21 minutes, 7 points, 2 rebounds, 3-8 FG, 1-4 3PT, +5
One thing is very certain after seeing Rui play on Tuesday: black masks look incredibly dope. It was the right call to go with that mask. Also, it looked like Rui got some hand tattoos during his week away from the team?
Anyway, when discussing his actual on-court play, he looked like someone who missed some time. The good news is, the last time he returned from injury, he hit the ground running so, hopefully, Tuesday was a small blip before a version of #PlayoffRui returns on Thursday.
27 minutes, 20 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 7-16 FG, 3-8 3PT, 3-3 FT, +17
That’s a performance worthy of shouting “I’m Him!” Reaves was the Lakers’ lifeline in the third quarter as the Suns rallied, scoring 13 points on 5-7 shooting to go toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant. Yes, really!
He came down to Earth in the fourth quarter and missed his first five shots. But despite that, despite LeBron playing at an insane level, despite a spot in the In-Season Tournament on the line, both AD and LeBron deferred to Reaves for the shot of the night.
AUSTIN REAVES OH MY GOODNESS— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 6, 2023
We saw it multiple times in the playoffs last year, but it will not be borderline unbelievable to me that LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of all time, openly defers to Austin Reaves in some of the biggest possible moments. And he delivers because he’s Him.
15 minutes, 1 point, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 0-2 FG, 0-2 3PT, 1-2 FT, +6
There were sprinkles of Vando of last year in his return to the court against Houston and there were entire helpings of it on Tuesday. In the first half, Vando had Devin Booker all out of sorts when he came into the game and reminded everyone just how good he is defensively.
His offensive rebounding was a huge thing the Lakers missed and it’s no coincidence that he got four of them on Tuesday and the Lakers also had 19 second-chance points, double their season average.
Why didn’t he play more then? Well, if I were to read between the lines a bit, D’Lo made a passing mention of players being on minutes restrictions during his postgame presser and Vando has played 14 and 15 minutes in his two games back, so there seems to be a chance he’s on one.
But as soon as that can be raised and lifted entirely, he spot back in the starting lineup feels pretty locked in.
9 minutes, 0 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 0-2 FG, +4
Another interesting takeaway from Tuesday is that Christian Wood was a DNP-CD and those minutes went to Jaxson Hayes. With the Lakers trapping Booker, having more of an athlete in Hayes on the court made sense and he did well on that end in his spot minutes.
He also was called for a pretty egregious foul that wiped away what was a really nice block.
The conversation around Ham is pretty toxic, bordering ridiculous. There’s a lot of confirmation bias that’s tossed around and leads to some pretty disingenuous or dishonest criticisms.
He’s not a perfect coach. He certainly has faults. He’s in his second year and learning as much as any second-year coach would. I’d also argue that few teams, if any, have been bitten harder by the injury bug this season.
The microscope is bigger both with it being the Lakers and a LeBron team. Every detail, big or small, is hyper-analyzed. A timeout comes a possession too late and the takes fly not toward the players making the mistakes but at the coach.
But Ham has plenty of strengths, too. He’s great at keeping players engaged so that you can turn to someone on a whim and have them step up, a very useful skill to have when your team is decimated by injuries like the Lakers have been.
He’s turned Reddish into a very viable role player, something he’s never consistently been in his career. D’Lo has had his most consistent and impactful season outside of his scoring of his career. Rui went from an afterthought with the Wizards to a genuine, high-level role player. All those things happened under Ham.
He’s also piecing together a defense that looks like it could be elite once the team is healthy and clicking on all cylinders. One of the biggest takeaways from these last two games is how good this team has looked at stretches on that end. On Tuesday, that came in the form of blitzing Booker and making his life hell, the second time he’s used that tactic against the Suns this season.
There are a lot of talented defensive players on the roster but there’s also a coach building a scheme around them that works.
And he has this team at 13-9 and in the In-Season Tournament semi-finals. All that matters.
Tuesday’s DNPs: Christian Wood, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Maxwell Lewis
Tuesday’s inactives: D’Moi Hodge, Alex Fudge, Colin Castleton, Gabe Vincent
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.