Lakers showcase recent strides despite losing to Suns: ‘We got each other’s backs’

PHOENIX — With 3:55 remaining in the Lakers’ 115-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center on Tuesday, Austin Reaves attempted a layup. Devin Booker contested the shot and struck Reaves in the face, knocking him to the ground as the whistle blew.

Booker, one of the game’s notorious trash talkers, flexed and strutted past Reaves, mean-mugging him and muttering something as Reaves lay on the ground. A few seconds later, Deandre Ayton, who collected the dead-ball rebound after the miss, also walked toward Reaves, then stood over him and smack-talked.

“I really didn’t see much after I got hit in the nose,” Reaves said. “I thought I was bleeding, so I was on the ground.”

Out of nowhere, Patrick Beverley charged Ayton from behind and body-checked him with his left shoulder, causing Ayton to topple over the ground-bound Reaves. Teammates from both sides rushed into the fray. Ayton stood up and tried to push toward Beverley. Anthony Davis then stepped in against Ayton, and eventually, the melee was broken up.

“When I did turn around, I saw Pat have my back, which I love,” Reaves said. “Everybody on the team, s—, is the same way. If it was him, we would’ve done the same thing for him.”

After a video review, Booker was assessed a flagrant foul 1, Beverley was issued a technical foul and ejected, and Ayton was given a technical foul. At the time, the Suns led 106-96.

“From my point of view, I felt like … obviously, very unprofessional,” Beverley said. “(The push) shouldn’t have happened, first and foremost. But I’m a big fan of protecting my teammate, especially teammates that I go to war with every night. I kind of felt like the play kind of got out of control after the stare-down at Austin Reaves by Book and then another stare-down by Ayton. The refs didn’t really come in and kind of break it up.

“I’m not going for that s—. That’s what I saw. Obviously, it’s unfortunate that it happened on national TV, but you know me; regardless of what’s going on, I’m a big fan of protecting my teammates. … I’m a foxhole guy. Very unfortunate situation, though.”

Beverley’s forceful response was a galvanizing moment for the Lakers, as head coach Darvin Ham and multiple teammates shared postgame.

“I love it, personally,” Russell Westbrook said. “Protecting and understanding we have each other’s back is the most important thing as a team.”

The Lakers dropped to 5-11, snapping their three-game win steak, but the group showed that its recent improved play isn’t a fluke. They hung with one of the best teams in the league in a hostile road environment without LeBron James (left groin strain), who missed his fifth consecutive game. They were dominated at the 3-point line (minus-36), but they found a way to partially offset that massive deficit with free throws (plus-26) and points in the paint (plus-10).

Over the past week and a half, the Lakers have proved they are considerably better than their horrific 2-10 starts.

“We got each other’s backs,” Davis said. “Pat is known for that: having his teammate’s back. … We’re never gonna let anyone stand over our teammate or make them feel like they’re not a man. That’s disrespectful.”

Reaves said he told Beverley he appreciated the gesture “four or five times” later.

“He’s a team player,” Reaves said. “He rocks with who he rocks with. Whoever is on his team, you respect him. You love him. You’re glad he’s on your team. When he’s not, he’s a pest (and) does all that stuff, all those little things. But I just respect him for who he is and standing up for me.”

The bad blood between the two teams, which Davis acknowledged has been brewing since their 2021 first-round playoff series, seeped into the postgame press conferences.

During his walk-off TV interview with TNT, Booker said, “Pat gotta stop pushing people in the back, man. Push them into the chest. That’s all I got to say.”

When relayed Booker’s comments, Beverley said, “I’m not going back and forth with all of that.”

Ham recognized that Beverley could’ve done a better job of handling things within the league’s rules while also making it clear he supports his starting point guard’s motives.

“At the end of the day, I’m not mad at him,” Ham said. “He’s there protecting his teammate, and I’m sure he’ll probably go through some type of consequence for that, but at the end of the day, that’s what we have to be as Lakers. We gotta be together. …Teams have to know that they can’t just push us around.”

Beverley said he’s “for sure” concerned about the NBA punishing him — he will likely be fined and potentially suspended — but he said he takes full responsibility and would do it again if a similar situation arose.

“Very unprofessional by myself,” Beverley said. “Definitely could have reacted in a different way. I know, yeah, I’m a big boy. I’ll take my lumps however they come.”

The incident overshadowed what had been a historic performance by Davis. He finished with 37 points on 11-for-17 shooting and 15-for-16 free-throw shooting, 21 rebounds, five steals and five blocks in 38 minutes.

Davis became the first player in NBA history to have at least 35 points, 20 rebounds, five blocks and five steals in a game. The outing also marked his fourth straight game with 30-plus points and 16-plus rebounds, which is a career first for him. The Lakers haven’t seen numbers like this from a big man since prime Shaquille O’Neal.

“It’s fantastic to watch,” Ham said. “I’m happy for him. He’s caught a lot of flak over the last couple of years in regards to him being available and him being able to sustain a high level of play. … He’s pushing through those (injury) issues and really performing at a high, high level for us.”

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure it continues.”

When asked if he’s been motivated to prove something to himself recently, Davis said, “I don’t need any motivation.”

“I think I finally just caught a rhythm,” he said. “And also, dealing with the back. It was kind of limiting movement. The back feels totally fine, back to normal, so I’m able to move a little bit more and just play free and not have to worry about moving and if I move this way, I move that way, I might feel my back. I feel really good. … There’s no motivation, no need to prove anyone wrong.”

Late in the first half, Davis landed awkwardly on his left arm after colliding with Booker while rolling to the rim and trying to catch a lob pass. He was writhing in pain on the ground for a couple of minutes before getting up during a Lakers timeout.

“I don’t know if I came down on (Booker’s) shoulder or something, but I hit, I think, my funny bone and just lost feeling in my arm, my fingers, my hand,” Davis said. “It’s still a little numb right now, my left hand, so I didn’t really need it much tonight.”

Davis, who said on media day that he wanted to play all 82 games but has already missed a game due to back tightness, refused to exit Tuesday’s game despite significant discomfort in his off-hand.

“My mindset was, ‘It’s your left hand,’” Davis said. “’Just get up, make your two free throws and figure it out at half. And then, get ready to play in the second half.’”

Davis is playing like a top-five player currently, and is back to being a no-brainer All-Star and All-NBA selection. This is the best he’s played in Los Angeles outside of his run in the Bubble during the Lakers’ championship year. One could argue he’s been even better than he was then, though his jumper has yet to return. Still, this version of him, paired with a healthy James, can help the Lakers get into the postseason as a scary underdog — especially if the team makes a trade to upgrade the roster in the near term.

James will return soon. A report on the telecast said that he will play Friday in San Antonio, though Ham maintains that James is day-to-day and the team will be careful with his recovery.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Ham said. “The amount of work he’s put in over these 20 years, we just can’t be that careless. We have to be cautious with him and just take our time.”

There were several points from Tuesday in which the Suns began to pull away, leading by 10 to 14 points, only for the Lakers to quickly respond and get the deficit back to single digits. They competed and defended at a high level, even as they reverted to their early-season form and couldn’t make a jump shot. They showed grit and resilience that wasn’t present earlier in the season.

Most important, when they felt their teammate was being disrespected, the group had his back, no matter the consequence.

“To see everybody rally around one another, rally around Austin and just the team in general and guys having each other’s back, that’s a huge step in the right direction,” Ham said. “Because that’s who we have to be. On the court, off the court, we have to be unified, we have to be together.

“(Tuesday), although disappointing, it was great to see some of the things we saw that’s letting us know, again, we’re starting to see the fruits of our labor.”


(Photo: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic)

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