Lakers beat Suns despite LeBron James struggling to score

Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves, right, shoots as Phoenix Suns center Jock Landale defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Lakers guard Austin Reaves attemps a reverse layups against Suns center Jock Landale during the first half Friday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

LeBron James looked blankly at the rim after an easy shot failed to fall. Two possessions later, he winced as the right cut by a teammate didn’t materialize and another possession went to waste.

Later, matched up with slight Phoenix guard Landry Shamet, James looked for a way to score in the post. He passed out of the opportunity. Later, he simply ran Shamet over for a charge and then missed a shot in the paint with the backup getting another stop on the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Friday night, James played in his seventh game since returning from a torn tendon in his foot and the Lakers very much looked like a team that was searching for answers instead of one polishing everything heading into the postseason.

A big part of that, particularly since the Lakers have been back in Los Angeles this week, has been James as he’s searched for consistent rhythm.

Friday, with the clock about to expire in the Lakers’ 121-107 win against the Suns, James held the ball above his head and fired a laser to D’Angelo Russell, who splashed home a three-pointer.

It was the right play at the right time, the kind the Lakers and their coach are comfortable getting from one of their stars.

With James struggling to score, the Lakers got 24 points from Russell, 22 from Austin Reaves and 21 from Malik Beasley. Anthony Davis scored just 14 but grabbed 21 rebounds.

James scored only three points in the first half Wednesday against the Clippers before erupting for 30 in the second half — though the Lakers’ slow start ultimately doomed them against their in-house rivals.

The Lakers have won 10 of their last 12 games, but their postseason fate is far from sealed with the outcomes of the Clippers, Warriors and Pelicans games all mattering in addition to the Lakers’ finale Sunday.

“We just have to be ready to do what we need to do,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the win.

Still, the Lakers are assured to have a winning record after beating their Suns — their 42 victory of the season coming after the team started 2-10.

“Can you believe were going to finish this season above .500?” James said to Davis after the win.

James scored only three points in the first half Wednesday against the Clippers before erupting for 30 in the second half — though the Lakers’ slow start ultimately doomed them against their in-house rivals.

“I’m absolutely encouraged by his performance,” Ham said before the game of James since his return. “Disappointed that he had to play that much [against the Clippers]. We had some lulls, some misplaced possessions, no disrespect to the teams we play, but we have to play better as a group so he doesn’t have to carry that load. But he’s in a great mind space, he’s in a great place physically outside of his foot issue and he’s managing that well. And it’s different. His passion is different.”

James’ return to the court wasn’t guaranteed after he injured his foot on Feb. 26. The Lakers, though, won enough without him while his recovery accelerate to the point that he was able to join the team for the final two weeks of the regular season.

Since then, the Lakers have clinched at least a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament with a guarantee of hosting at least one game as a seventh or eighth seed. With help, they still have a chance to qualify for a first-round playoff series with a top-six finish in the West.

James mostly has been efficient in his return, making more than half his shots heading into Friday’s game against Phoenix.

Yet even with the Suns playing without Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — all resting on the second night of back-to-back games with their No. 4 playoff seed assured — James had to work to find his way into the game.

He scored just 16 points, needing 19 shot attempts. He frustratingly took just two free-throw attempts. It was his second-lowest scoring game of the season.

And for the third straight game and the fourth since his return, James committed at least five turnovers — one sure sign showcasing a combination of rust after a 13-game absence and a roster that turned over heavily at the trade deadline.

As the Lakers head into their season finale on Sunday against Utah, their playoff or play-in fate still undecided, it’s clear the Lakers still have real ground to cover — with the situations soon to demand the best from Davis and James.

“I think it’s a work in progress, man,” Ham said. “… But thank God that Bron, again, I think I said this earlier, he’s the type of player that’s hunting triple-doubles, not 30 shots, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes it comes to that because we may be struggling in other areas offensively and he just has to force his will on the offensive side of the ball. But he’s built his entire playing career on playing the right way. And that’s in him.

“That’s not something that’s been forced on him.”

Soon it’ll be ready or not for the Lakers. For now, though, there’s still some precious time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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