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Lakers beat Suns to keep first-round playoff hopes alive

LeBron James looked blankly up at the rim after an easy little push shot failed to fall. Two possessions later, he winced as the right cut didn’t materialize and another possession went to waste.

Later, matched up with slight Phoenix guard Landry Shamet, James looked for a way to score out of the post. He passed out of the opportunity. Later, he simply ran Shamet over for a charge and then missed a shot in the paint with the backup getting another stop on the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

On Friday night, James played in his seventh game since returning from a torn tendon in his foot and the Lakers very much still looked like a team that was searching for answers instead of one polishing everything heading into the postseason.

A big part of that, particularly since the Lakers have been back in Los Angeles this week, has been James as he has searched for consistent rhythm.

On Friday, with the clock about to expire in the Lakers’ 121-107 win over the Suns, James held the ball above his head and fired a laser to D’Angelo Russell, who splashed home a three-pointer.

It was the right play at the right time, the kind the Lakers and their coach are comfortable getting from one of their stars.

With James struggling to score, the Lakers got 24 points from Russell, 22 from Austin Reaves and 21 from Malik Beasley. Anthony Davis scored just 14 but grabbed 21 rebounds.

The Lakers have won 10 of their last 12 games, but their postseason fate is far from sealed with the outcomes of the Clippers, Warriors and Pelicans games all mattering in addition to the Lakers’ finale Sunday.

“We just have to be ready to do what we need to do,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the win.

Still, the Lakers are assured to have a winning record after beating the Suns — their 42nd victory of the season coming after the team started 2-10.

“Can you believe were going to finish this season above .500?” James asked Davis after the win.

James scored just three points in the first half Wednesday against the Clippers before erupting for 30 in the second half — though the Lakers’ slow start ultimately doomed them against their in-house rivals.

“I’m absolutely encouraged by his performance,” Ham said before the game of James since his return. “Disappointed that he had to play that much [against the Clippers]. We had some lulls, some misplaced possessions, no disrespect to the teams we play, but we have to play better as a group so he doesn’t have to carry that load. But he’s in a great mind space, he’s in a great place physically outside of his foot issue, and he’s managing that well.”

James’ return to the court wasn’t guaranteed after he injured his foot Feb. 26. The Lakers, though, won enough without him while his recovery accelerated to the point that he was able to join the team for the final two weeks of the regular season.

Since then, the Lakers, who sit seventh in the conference, have clinched at least a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament with a guarantee of hosting at least one game should they be required to. With help, they still have a chance to qualify for a first-round playoff series with a top-six finish.

James has mostly been efficient in his return, making more than half his shots heading into Friday’s game with Phoenix. But even with the Suns playing without Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — all resting on the second night of a back-to-back with their No. 4 seed assured — James still had to work to find his way into the game. James scored just 16 points, needing 19 shot attempts. He frustratingly took just two free-throw attempts. It was his second-lowest scoring game of the season. And for the third straight game (and the fourth since his return), James committed at least five turnovers — one sign showcasing a combination of rust after a 13-game absence and a roster that turned over heavily at the trade deadline.

Continuity continued to be an issue Friday with backup point guard Dennis Schroder missing the game after he woke up from an afternoon nap with neck spasms.

“I think just overall wear and tear. I think sometimes things kick in when you lay in the bed sleeping. He’s been battling it,” Ham said. “… Extreme neck soreness, it happens. I’ve actually experienced that as a player before.”

With Schroder out, the Lakers thankfully got a big game from Beasley, who came off the bench to keep the team in the game early against the Suns’ reserves.

As the Lakers head into their finale on Sunday against Utah, their playoff (or play-in) fate still undecided, it’s clear they still have real ground to cover — with the situations soon to demand the best from Davis and James.

“I think it’s a work in progress, man,” Ham said. “… But thank God that Bron, again, I think I said this earlier, he’s the type of player that’s hunting triple-doubles, not 30 shots, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes it comes to that because we may be struggling in other areas offensively and he just has to force his will on the offensive side of the ball. But he’s built his entire playing career on playing the right way. And that’s in him.

“That’s not something that’s been forced on him.”

Soon it will be ready or not for the Lakers. For now, though, there’s still some precious time.



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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