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Out of necessity, LeBron (along with Anthony Davis) played the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ home opener on Thursday night at Crypo.com Arena. The Lakers scrapped and clawed their way to a 100-95 victory over Kevin Durant and the shorthanded Phoenix Suns.
Lakers’ initial LeBron James minutes plan
Two days prior, in a 119-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets, LeBron was limited to 29 minutes — considerably fewer than his unsustainable average of 35.5 last season. Over the summer, the Lakers built a roster that they believe has the requisite depth, youth, and continuity to drastically ease the burden on James.
At the moment, the Lakers are far from a polished product. In Denver, LeBron was easily their most productive player; the Lakers were outscored by 19 when he rested. When Darvin Ham subbed him out with 8:48 to go in the fourth quarter, the Lakers were down four. When LeBron re-entered at the six-minute mark, the deficit was 12.
Afterward, Ham revealed that “in all likelihood,” LeBron’s regular workload would stay around 30 minutes — an approach worked out in collaboration with LeBron, the front office, and medical personnel. LeBron claimed he wasn’t “upset” by the situation.
“It’s easy with him to get caught up in the emotion of the game and you tend to forget you want to play these long stretches,” Ham acknowledged. “But in order for him to be as effective as possible, we have to be mindful of the minute output and how long his stretches are.”
LeBron if he’s upset or surprised by his minutes: “Nah, I’m not surprised. I already talked to Coach. We had a game plan going into game one. Not surprised or upset.” https://t.co/GUZLNePN7M
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 25, 2023
Lakers clarify plan vs. Suns
The Lakers clarified the plan at shootaround on Thursday.
“Tthe feeling is that, that’s a guideline, not a hard cap,” ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported on LeBron’s minutes. “So, if LeBron James is around 30 minutes and it’s a close game with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, he’s going to stay on the court.”
The Lakers’ offense sputtered against Phoenix. They shot 42.9% from the field and 5-for-29 (17.2%) from 3. After the third-quarter buzzer, with LeBron at 23 minutes and the Lakers down 12, Ham asked James if he had 12 minutes left in his 38-year-old body. Ham had purposefully pocketed three timeouts in case he needed to buy LeBron rest.
LeBron assured Ham he had enough gas in his tank. (The Lakers’ impending two days off likely made the call easier.)
“I said, ‘How we feeling? What do we want to do?’” recounted Ham. “And he answered my question. You guys saw the results.”
The true star of the fourth quarter was the Lakers’ defense, bolstered by gritty contributions from Christian Wood and Gabe Vincent. They dominated the glass, surrendered four field goals, and forced seven turnovers.
LeBron takes over
LeBron took it from there. With the game tied at 91 and about one minute left, James, in his 35th minute — after scoring nine points in the period — converted back-to-back tough layups through traffic, sandwiching a Durant miss. He finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists. (Davis, meanwhile, stayed engaged for four quarters. He dropped 13 in the fourth and posted 30 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, and three steals.)
“We needed every ounce of it,” Ham said about LeBron’s all-around effort. “He has that intensity to put the team on his shoulders … He’s laying it all out for his team in Year 21. I just hope a lot of these young pros are looking and seeing what he’s doing.”
“We know when it’s money time or when it’s a close game, we know we have a few actions that we can get to where we know we’re going to at least get a good look or a good shot,” James pointed out.
91-91. LeBron tough layup, KD missed 3, LeBron tough layup. Lakers up 4, 41.0 seconds left pic.twitter.com/r8aermnTBm
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 27, 2023
LeBron offered his account of his pre-fourth quarter interaction with Ham.
“He asked me, ‘Could I go the quarter?’ I looked at the time and the score and what was going on in the game, and it was an easy answer for myself. 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.
“Coach trusted me, and I had to go out and prove it.”
For now, this is how the Lakers have to play it. Generally, keep LeBron around 28-32 minutes, hang onto a few timeouts, and let him extend himself when need be. How often they’ll need it may determine his freshness in May and June — and, ultimately, the ceiling of the Lakers’ season.
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