December 7, 2023

LOS ANGELES — Down a dozen heading into the fourth quarter and facing an 0-2 start to the season barring a comeback against the Phoenix Suns, Lakers coach Darvin Ham had a decision to make — either stick to the 30-minute guideline planned for LeBron James’ playing time and have him on the court only about half the final frame, or push the limit and see if L.A. could ride the 21-year veteran to victory.

Ham chose the latter. James nearly outscored the Suns singlehandedly while playing the entire fourth, and the Lakers won 100-95 to bounce back from a disappointing opening loss in Denver.

“He asked me if I could go the [whole] quarter, and I looked at the time and the score and what was going on in the game, and it was an easy answer for myself,” James said after finishing with 21 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds in 35 minutes. “I know how much work I’ve put in to be able to play quarters or whatever the case may be. And I understand that we definitely have a system put in place, but tonight called for me to go outside the box.”

The Lakers outscored the Suns 28-11 in the fourth, with James scoring 10 points, including four straight on consecutive layups to break a 91-91 tie and give L.A. a four-point cushion with 41.0 seconds remaining.

To help build in some extra rest for the 38-year-old star, Ham saved three timeouts for the fourth. He called one with 4:55 remaining, another with 3:07 left and the Lakers were gifted two more breaks by the Suns. Former Lakers coach Frank Vogel used a challenge to overturn an out-of-bounds call with 2:19 remaining and also called for time with 26.6 seconds left to set up an offensive possession.

“We were dragging our feet there for the better part of the first half and things weren’t clicking,” Ham said. “He has that spirit, that intensity to put the team on his shoulders. And I had timeouts to play with. And so I went to him, I said, ‘How we feeling? What do we want to do?’ And he answered my question. And you guys saw the results. So, we used a couple of our timeouts to get some breathers.”

Anthony Davis was right there with James helping L.A. complete the comeback. Davis had 13 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth, also finishing with 12 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks.

It was a better showing for Davis, who went scoreless in the second half in L.A.’s loss to the defending champion Denver Nuggets on Tuesday.

During his on-court postgame interview with the TNT broadcast, James was adamant in his dismissal of critiques about Davis’ performance.

“We don’t give a s— about criticism about AD,” James said. “We don’t care. Nothing bothers us. AD doesn’t care. I don’t know if guys have figured that out. AD does not care. He’s not on social media, so he doesn’t see none of the crap. He rarely talks, unless it’s to us, so we don’t give a s— about it, and he definitely doesn’t. He just goes out and does his job and we’re happy to have AD.”

True to form, Davis didn’t even mention his individual offensive output when asked about L.A.’s fourth-quarter performance, instead focusing on the team’s defensive effort.

“Just being able to get stops and rebound,” Davis said after the Lakers held the Suns to 5-for-20 shooting to close it out. “That’s it. We have enough on the floor offensively to score the basketball. … Just wanted to lock in defensively. Especially when you got a guy like [Kevin Durant] going, just making it tough for him. And then just make sure the other guys don’t beat you. That’s what we tried to do.”

Durant, playing without fellow Suns stars in Devin Booker (sore foot) and Bradley Beal (sore lower back), led all scorers with 39 points and moved past Hakeem Olajuwon for No. 12 on the all-time scoring list in the process.

“We don’t have many matchups left,” James said after he and Durant played their first regular season game against one another since Christmas Day in 2018. Not sure how many we have left so. So you don’t ever want to take it for granted when you’re out there with such a great player, one of the best to ever play this game.”

Afterward, Ham was already focused on how he could continue to save James’ best as the season progresses and L.A. builds toward its championship goal.

“Obviously, recovery process starts now,” Ham said. “But my hat’s off to him, man. He never ceases to amaze us. He cares. He cares. That’s why you see his type of stat line. He’s laying it all out for his team in Year 21, and I just hope a lot of these young pros out here are looking and seeing what he’s doing.”

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