Times like this are when the season is at its most difficult, the pressure is on and the stakes are raised. Now is when it gets tougher, when the Lakers’ problems are tolerable or fatal.
And with the clock ticking down on their season and the importance of each game increasing, the Lakers needed to win over a familiar rival, one that has dominated the matchups between the two for more than two seasons.
facing the phoenix sunswhom the Lakers have beaten just once in their last nine meetings, the team would have to be near its prime, mistakes meant more as each possession carried more weight.
You could feel that inside the building, the crowd murmuring when a turnover would lead to a layup or when a free throw would be called down.
And that same crowd? It broke out when Anthony Davis played hard over the rim or when D’Angelo Russell hit a 3-pointer or cut to the basket.
And when the horn blew, the celebration felt won, a great victory at a great moment, the Lakers beating the Suns 122-111.
Davis scored 27, Russell added 26 and Austin Reaves finished with 25.
A day after saying he wanted his team to live in the paint, coach Darvin Ham’s Lakers attempted 46 free throws to the Suns’ 20 attempts.
“It’s a huge weapon that we can fully harness,” Ham said. “…If you don’t have an open three, you have to take the ball down the hill to the rim.”
It all happened the night the Lakers changed direction in a pretty big way.
Ham smiled as he hinted that a change might be in the offing before the Lakers game on Wednesday night.
“We’ve got something up our sleeve tonight,” Ham said before the game.
The small detail turned out to be quite important, Ham changing the Lakers’ starting lineup for the first time after the trade deadline without injuries being a factor.
Reaves moved into the top five after scoring a career-high 35 points in the Lakers’ victory Sunday against the Magic, the two days off between games giving Ham and the coaching staff time to make the switch.
“I felt like it made all the sense in the world,” Ham said.
It was Reaves’ first start since Jan. 4, and he finished with a career-high 11 assists.
“It was huge for us,” Ham said after the win. “…It’s been huge for us all year.”
Reaves finished 6 of 10 from the field and 12 of 13 from the free throw line to help the Lakers hold off the Suns.
Early in the game, the Lakers received conflicting news in the league, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns returned and made two free throws in the final seconds to give the Timberwolves the win.
However, Utah lost at home against the Portland Trail Blazers, giving the Lakers a chance to gain ground in their quest for a postseason berth.
With the win, the Lakers tie for ninth place with Dallas, which lost to Golden State on Wednesday.
Chris Paul started the game with Reaves guarding him and was very aggressive with Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton out for the Suns.
He finished with 18, but had foul trouble with Reaves playing downhill to the rim.
Devin Booker scored 33, but all the points were won as Jarred Vanderbilt chased the guard down the court.
The Lakers began their push in the second quarter by reaching the free throw line, and when things got tense in the third, it was Davis who held the Suns back.
He scored 14 in the third, playing at and over the rim. Russell, who also continued to attack, scored nine as the Suns closed to within one possession.
In the fourth, Phoenix pushed again, but the Lakers closed out on a 23-13 run.
The win allowed the Lakers to move in the right direction Wednesday, the Western Conference bracket as tight as ever with three games in the standings separating the fourth-place Suns from the 12th-place Pelicans.
“It’s going to be eventful,” Reaves said. “But that’s why you play the game. You want high-pressure moments and you really want to play under the lights.”
The spotlight was on Wednesday, and the Lakers didn’t run away from it.