Even before the flecks of gray appeared in LeBron James’ beard, observers started speculating about his workload. Every year since, there’s been an anxious question: Is this the year The King starts saving his minutes?
It was just a cool 32 minutes in Memphis on Sunday afternoon, but James did his best work in the fourth quarter. He scored 13 of his 22 points in the last frame to clinch a 108-94 road win, the Lakers’ third straight, against the Grizzlies.
From fleet-footed drives to the rim to a few stepback shots — including a memorable one with his feet planted on the paw of the Memphis halfcourt logo — it was impossible for his coach to sub him as he kept pulling the Lakers away.
“I’m trying to get him a blow so he doesn’t play the whole fourth quarter,” Frank Vogel said afterward, “he keeps making big plays and it’s tough to take him out.”
Aside from keeping the Lakers atop the West at 5-2 with the Suns and Clippers, it washed away a bit of stale taste of early season doldrums an overwhelming title favorite has experienced in its first road trip of the season. It was another game the Lakers could’ve won easily on paper.
At the start of the fourth quarter leading by just two points, James seemingly had enough of the upset bid.
“I wanted to try to implement myself and my scoring a little bit more,” he said. “Get a little bit more in attack mode and see if I can kind of open the game up. And we were able to do that.”
It wasn’t a particularly impressive win against a Memphis team without young stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. In the early going, the Lakers looked sleepy on a Sunday afternoon, at one point allowing a 28-9 run by the scrappy Grizzlies. That included a four-and-a-half minute scoreless stretch that saw the Lakers miss seven straight shots and cough up three turnovers.
For a Lakers’ offense that has often hummed, cold snaps like those seem surprising. It was even harder, Frank Vogel acknowledged, to find defensive cohesion with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (left ankle sprain) and Alex Caruso (COVID-19 protocols) missing the game at the same position. The absence of their steady defense was keenly felt on missed assignments that helped rookie Desmond Bane (13 points) look more like Steph Curry.
But Vogel also pointed to the subsequent effort after the Grizzlies scored 36 points in the fourth quarter: 18, 21 and then 19 in the fourth. He credited the Lakers for figuring out adjustments as the game went on — albeit against a relatively disarmed Memphis team.
“It’s just a little bit slow with some of the reads when you’re rotating a defense like that, so we did lack some of that early on,” he said. “But our guys are vets and they’re pros and I thought they did a good job figuring out a game.”
Davis was one of the slowest to warm, missing eight of his first nine attempts. But he wound up with 17 points (12 in the second half), adding three steals and three blocks for good measure.
Balanced offense again helped pull the Lakers through, as six players scored 11 or more points. In the critical middle stretch that saw them go shot for shot with their hosts, the Lakers leaned a lot on Montrezl Harrell, who had 16 points and 9 rebounds off the bench (including four offensive boards). Wesley Matthews also provided a shooting boost, knocking back four threes on his way to 14 points.
James’ minutes are hovering around 32 per night, which is the lowest of his career, but it might be a reflection of the Lakers’ depth as much as it is his 18th season. Games like Sunday reinforce that he’s still the tone-setter on the team: Matthews said it was motivating to watch James lead the late effort.
“He does that every single night and I think we got a team that follows that lead and a team that comprised of a lot of hardnosed, tough-minded individuals that are going to hit the deck, that are going to sacrifice their bodies,” he said. “Because we know that in order to do get to where we want to go, we’re going to have to make plays like that.
Added Matthews: “Basketball is a beautiful game. Basketball is a ugly game. You got to be able to win both ways.”
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