The first game of the NBA’s in-season tournament in Phoenix brought out the best in Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant on Friday.
The NBA could not have asked for more in this slice of the inaugural event, which is designed to add another story line (and potential revenue stream) to the regular season and which the league likes to compare to the three-week fan feeding frenzy that is NCAA postseason tournament and the Premier
James and Durant are the NBA’s leading active career scorers — James ranks first in league history and Durant ranks fourth — and they did what they do in the Lakers’ 122-119 comeback victory on the garish purple court at the Footprint Center.
When they did that it was the determining factor, as the 4-5 Lakers won their first road game of the season and the Suns fell to 4-5 while waiting to play their first game with owner Mat Ishbia’s full “super team.”
James had 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, and he took over in the final 14 minutes when the Lakers used a 24-6 run to overcome 11-point deficit with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Durant had 38 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
James was particularly bullish on the tournament afterward, telling ESPN’s Lisa Salters that the Lakers are set on winning the Cup that goes to the tournament champion. The players on the winning team also get $500,000, with $200,000 going to the other finalist. Semifinal losers get $100,000 per and quarterfinal losers make $50,000 per.
“I hear there’s $500,000 on the line,” James said with a knowing smile. “We’re going for that. We’re going for that.”
Never mind that James will make $47.6 million in salary this season, Anthony Davis will make $40 million and every Laker will make at least $1.1 million.
James was his all-around self in the fourth quarter, with had five points, six rebounds and two assists. His nifty pass to a cutting Austin Reaves gave the Lakers a 97-96 lead during a 16-2 run in the first three minutes of the quarter, and the Suns never caught up.
“It was good to just finally get over the hump at this early stage of our season,” said James, whose team broke a three-game losing streak on the fourth and final game of a road trip. “We were playing from behind in a lot of our games and we haven’t been able to take the lead in some of the later games that we lost.
“We finally were able to make one of those momentum shots. Once that momentum shot opened, I feel like the flood gates started. We were knocking those three-point balls down and things of that nature. ‘AR’ (Reaves) got going and I think the rest is history.”
James played the full 12 minutes in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers took control while Durant was given his normal rest at the start of the quarter. He sat out the first four minutes before reentering with 7:52 remaining and the Suns trailing by five points.
Bradley Beal, who had 24 points in his second game of the season after missing the first seven with back soreness, was the only of the Suns’ big three on the floor during the Lakers’ surge. (Devin Booker missed his fourth straight game with a strained right calf). The Lakers blitzed Beal, creating turnovers, and the Suns could not keep up. Cam Reddish made three three-pointers and had a steal in the fourth.
“We’ve talked about tweaking that so he’s in when we start the fourth quarter,” Suns’ coach Frank Vogel said of Durant’s late-game usage. “We thought with Bradley coming back that he could carry us during that stretch. I felt like our defensive breakdowns to start the fourth were more (an issue) than Kevin Durant carrying us offensively. We didn’t guard during that stretch.”
James’ teams are 16-6 against Durant’s teams when they have met in the regular season. Durant’s teams are 9-5 in the playoffs, the most notable the 2017 and 2018 championship series won by Durant’s Golden State Warriors over James’s Cleveland Cavaliers
“They made their shots,” Durant said, “and I keep telling them it is a make-or-miss league. They made four threes to start the quarter and they got it going. They controlled the game from there and the momentum switched in their favor when they started knocking down threes.”