PHOENIX — LeBron James grimaced as he jogged back with a slight limp to the visitor’s locker room at Footprint Center late Friday night.
But not even a painful shin injury suffered in the first quarter could spoil this night for James, who had 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists to overcome Kevin Durant and lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their first in-season tournament victory, 122-119, over the Phoenix Suns.
Once again, James and Durant engaged in an epic duel with Durant finishing with 38 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Durant scored seven of his points in the fourth but James found Cam Reddish in the corner for an open 3 that gave the Lakers a 118-113 lead with 1:10 left that Phoenix couldn’t overcome.
James also had to shake off an unintentional blow he took from Durant on a drive to the basket with 4:22 remaining in the first quarter when Durant’s knee hit James in the left shin. James had to collect himself along the baseline for a moment before later getting his shin treated and stretched on the bench.
James said the injury was sore after the game and could be seen walking with a slight limp. The Lakers play again on Sunday against Portland at home.
“It never loosened up,” James said of the shin. “… [It] pretty much locked up right then and there… So I tried to keep my composure, make sure I was OK, and try to keep it stretched out and as loose as possible and play the game and be effective.
“Pretty sore right now. Obviously because the adrenaline is calming down and iced it, now it’s pretty sore.”
The Lakers (4-5) needed this win badly, not only because it was their first in-season tournament game but it snapped a three-game losing streak on this four-game road trip.
Head coach Darvin Ham made a lineup change to spark the team, starting Reddish (17 points) and bringing Austin Reaves off the bench for the first time this season.
“Everybody agreed that we needed to change up the music a little bit,” Ham said. “It wasn’t a demotion for Austin. It was just a realignment. If anybody remembers those great San Antonio teams where everyone in the world knew Manu [Ginobili] was a starter. But sometimes to balance out your lineup, you have to put a player of his magnitude in a reserve role so now when the starters go to sit down and take their break, you’re not totally falling off a cliff. You have balance in the second unit.”
Reaves and Ham talked on Thursday night about the move. The swing man responded making 6-of-11 shots and finishing with 15 points and seven assists. Reaves had been a starter since Mar. 22 of last season.
“I’m a competitor,” Reaves said. “Truthfully, don’t want to have that conversation. Would love to have been playing better to not have those conversations, winning as a team. But, my parents taught me at a young age that the coach is the coach. And his decision, regardless if you agree with it or don’t agree with it, you respect that. That’s what I did. We had good dialogue back and forth on what we thought we could do to be better as a unit… winning is the main thing.
“… I understand. I see the writing on the wall. I kinda seen it coming. I haven’t played great. I’ve had games here and there. And as a team, we haven’t played great. Obviously. on this road trip we were 0-3 until now. And [we] needed to shake things up.”
The Lakers made 12-of-27 3-point shots and this time they came up with the big second-chance efforts on this trip. On perhaps the biggest possession of the game, the Lakers got three offensive rebounds before James hit Reddish for that corner 3 to push them up five with 1:10 left.
The Lakers outscored the Suns, 33-23, and hit five triples in the fourth.
“I think it’s the first time that we finally got over the hump as far as this road trip,” James said. “… We finally were able to make one of those momentum shots and once that momentum shot opened, I felt like the floodgates started [early in the fourth] and then guys really started knocking them down.
“… We’ve been playing from behind in a lot of our games and haven’t been able to take the lead in some of the later games that we’ve lost. So that was a good feeling.”
At the end of the night, James, a huge Ohio State fan, also managed to get in a little dig at rival Michigan and Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh when asked about Phoenix’s defense.
James couldn’t resist a little jab at Michigan and Harbaugh, who was handed a suspension for the remainder of the regular season from the Big Ten conference amid an ongoing NCAA investigation over the school’s in-person sign stealing.
“I think us having a knowledge of Coach [Frank] Vogel and his coaching staff,” James said of the former Lakers coach when asked about playing against Phoenix’s defense. “We know that he’s going to switch defenses up and he has a lot of defensive packages, a lot of schemes. So just about trying to read the game and see at what point, what the first quarter, second quarter, third, fourth, what are they in? We’ve got some history with Coach Frank, so we able to kind of have that blueprint and be able to steal some signals as well.
“So that was key to our success and the best thing about tonight is that we were able to get those signals in [and] we still [are] able to play on Sunday. We don’t get suspended like that team up North.”