Darvin Ham opted to shrink his starting lineup, and the results were, for a time, pretty exciting in the first half of L.A.'s eventual 119-115 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Following an ignominious 0-for-7 preseason debut Monday against the Sacramento Kings, ageless wonder LeBron James put on quite the show in Las Vegas for fans in T-Mobile Arena tonight.
The 18-time All-Star kicked off the game 4-of-4 from the field. In just 17:26 of action (given that it's the preseason, Ham opted to rest his older players in the game's second half), James ultimately scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting (3-of-6 from deep), while dishing out four assists, pulling down three rebounds, and nabbing a steal.
It looks like James's three-point shooting last season was no fluke. His teammates found him on consecutive possessions at one point to launch some triples from waaay outside.
On the cusp of beginning his 20th NBA regular season, James remained remarkably effective inside and out. Suns small forward Mikal Bridges, generally considered one of the better wing defenders in the NBA, looked helpless against a barreling LBJ at one point:
Rookie power forward Cole Swider, who signed a a two-way contract this summer after going undrafted out of Syracuse, started in James's stead for the contest's second half. In 27:34, Swider shot an underwhelming 1-of-7.
Ham promoted guard Patrick Beverley, wing Austin Reaves, and nominal power forward Wenyen Gabriel (jumping center) to starting roles next to James and Russell Westbrook, looking to shake up his rotation a bit. Reaves and Beverley played well. Reaves didn't look to score much, though he did shoot an efficient 2-of-3 from the field. More importantly, he managed to contribute in other ways across the stat sheet, passing for nine assists, grabbing seven rebounds, snagging three steals and blocking two shots. He could be an excellent off-ball compliment to the Lakers' stars with a bigger role this year.
Beverley only looked to shoot from long range, taking all his five field goals from beyond the three-point line, and connecting on two. He finished with eight points, four rebounds, two assists, and one really, really cool block.
That's 6'1", 34-year-old Patrick Beverley taking advantage of an inattentive 6'11", $132.9 million center Deandre Ayton! The Suns, who recently lost to the Adelaide 36ers, seem to be dealing with chemistry issues following their epic Game 7 Western Conference Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Ayton and Mikal Bridges couldn't buy a bucket all night, going a combined 4-of-20 from the field. All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul scored in bunches during the game's first half.
Star forward Anthony Davis was a late-game scratch due to a lower back injury. He was set to shift up a position to center tonight. With AD sitting, Ham opted to keep his small ball scheme intact, starting 6'9" power forward Wenyen Gabriel, like Reaves signed to a non-guaranteed deal this year. Gabriel had some hops in short bursts, but failed to find a rhythm offensively, finishing just 1-of-4 from the field. But that sole field goal was quite the bucket!
Aside from James, the other big standout of the night was combo guard Kendrick Nunn, who has looked fully dialed-in for both his preseason contests. Tonight, the 27-year-old combo guard scored 21 points, shooting 8-of-13 from the floor (4-of-7 from long range) in just 18:52 minutes. Nunn also flashed his handle. The Lakers suddenly have a decent amount of supplemental backcourt playmaking between the former Miami Heat guard, the incoming Dennis Schroder, and Reaves.
All told, the Lakers' main nine-man rotation performed better than the Suns' (and looked surprisingly frisky defensively), but their younger players let Phoenix back into the game late, costing them the W.
Russell Westbrook had a fairly inefficient shooting night in general, though he did go 2-of-4 from the three-point line. Late in the first quarter, he looked like his old speedster self, cutting inside to capitalize on a good Damian Jones bounce pass.
As far as the team's youth movement goes, none of L.A.'s three rookie prospects -- second-round pick Max Christie or two-way players Swider and Scotty Pippen Jr. -- looked particularly good tonight against the Suns' more experienced third-shifters. Exhibit 9 signing Dwayne Bacon, however, had a nice night in limited minutes. Across just 6:53 minutes, he went 3-of-5 from the floor and consistently drew contact inside, going 5-of-7 on his free throws. He finished with 11 points, two rebounds, and an assist. Can he survive the preseason and make the Lakers' standard 15-man roster?
Chances are slim, but maybe Darvin Ham will give him some run tomorrow night, when L.A. faces off against old friend D'Angelo Russell and his Minnesota Timberwolves.
Per Mike Trudell of Spectrum SportsNet, Ham stated in postgame remarks that James, Davis and Westbrook will all miss the Timberwolves contest given that it falls on the second night of a preseason back-to-back. Ham noted that Beverley, about to embark on his 10th NBA season, may also be held out.