On the eve of their biggest game this season to date, the Lakers didn’t manufacture a playoff atmosphere with a practice detailing their opponent’s tendencies. They didn’t gather for some rah-rah speech about the “win or go home” game.
Monday at the Lakers’ practice facility was mostly just a practice — something the Lakers haven’t gathered to formally do in more than a month.
The timing of that practice, before the Lakers host Phoenix on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the NBA’s in-season tournament, was a bonus instead of some preparation for high-pressure, win-at-all-costs basketball.
“I don’t think we’re really looking at it that way,” Anthony Davis said. “I mean, obviously it’s a big game as far as the tournament goes but we’re taking it as another game. Obviously you want to get to Vegas and have a chance to win it all, but we’re not putting too much stress on or too much pressure on ourselves that this is an end-all, be-all type of game.”
Big picture, it’s the right approach. The banners above Davis inside the Lakers’ practice facility celebrate the NBA championships that have been counted, the only ones that really matter.
But on the court, the Lakers and Davis have played with more purpose during these tournament games, the intensity and atmosphere nudging in the direction the league hoped when it concocted this event to drive early-season attention.
The Lakers are undefeated — no team in the NBA winning its tournament games as easily as the Lakers did. The tightest one they played, of course, was in Phoenix against the Suns.
The Suns’ lineup will look different Tuesday with star guard Devin Booker playing against the Lakers for the first time this season. Phoenix will be without Bradley Beal, who played in that first tournament game, because of a back injury.
For the two teams, the chance to go to Las Vegas for Thursday’s semifinal is the most logical intensity driver, but the organizations also have plenty of history.
Booker was on the court when the Suns eliminated Davis and LeBron James in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. The Lakers coach in those games, Frank Vogel, now leads Phoenix with plenty of members from his staff in Los Angeles.
Since then, the rosters for both teams have almost turned over.
The Lakers are finally getting a truer look at the one they assembled this offseason. Jarred Vanderbilt debuted on Saturday and Rui Hachimura is trending toward playing after missing the last week following surgery to repair his a broken nose.
“You just fall back on what you’ve been implementing all year. Just the principles,” Ham said. “And those guys, while sitting out, have had a chance to look and see what’s worked for us and what hasn’t worked for us. And they also bring some intangible positives from their size, their ability to get 50-50 balls, just making us bigger and stronger and faster at every position. But it’ll be a process.
“But … the competitive spirit and togetherness covers up a lot of technical difficulties, if that makes sense. You can have the wrong coverage, but a person’s energy will allow a person to still be successful. It’s like that with a lineup, too.”
There should be plenty of competitiveness on Tuesday, the winner getting one step closer to the inaugural NBA Cup title and the $500,000 cash prize for each player.
“You guys can see, too, our intensity with each game is different between the tournament games and the regular season,” Hachimura said. “So I’m excited for it. I like the feeling of the tournament. We gotta get this one tomorrow and go to Vegas and get the whole bag.”