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    Alexander: For LeBron James, rest is good … but winning is better
    • October 27, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — If you’re old enough, you know what they say about good intentions. And Darvin Ham’s intentions were pure and logical: Keep 38-year-old LeBron James’ minutes under control, thus keeping him fresh and healthy and available for more of the season.

    In Game 2 of the season, those plans underwent some revision on the fly.

    James played 35 minutes, exactly, including the entire fourth quarter in the Lakers’ 100-95 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. This was a Suns roster that was shorthanded, with Bradley Beal still dealing with tightness in his lower back and Devin Booker tweaking his left foot Tuesday in the late stages of the Suns’ opening night victory over Golden State.

    But it was also a Suns roster that, thanks to Kevin Durant, had the Lakers by the neck for much of the night, leading by 12 points going into the fourth quarter. Through three periods, James had played 23 minutes, and the Lakers were outscored by 16 points when he was out of the game.

    And all that stuff Ham had said before the game, about trying to protect LeBron? Sometimes you’ve just got to adjust.

    “It’s an ongoing thing,” he said before the game. “Obviously, all the miles that he’s logged in this league over the last 20 years and going into his 21st season, we have to be careful. And, again, he makes it easy by how well he takes care of himself. But you tend to forget, again, the wear and tear that he’s had to endure.

    “And, you know, you want to prevent any chance of injury by being careful on the front end and not just saying, ‘Oh, he looks fine, he’s playing great. He still has that pop, that energy, that twitch,’ and run him out there too long. And before you know it, you know, things happen. So to avoid all of that, we proactively came up with a plan beforehand, with the medical team, with him, starting with him, our medical team, Mike Macias, myself, Rob (Pelinka), we all put our heads together to see what was the best course of action. And that’s what we landed on.”

    The magic number seemed to be 30 minutes a game, and LeBron played a tick over 29 in Tuesday’s opener at Denver. But, as we saw Thursday night, there can be wiggle room.

    We saw why. The Lakers outscored Phoenix 28-11 in the fourth quarter, holding the Suns to 5-for-20 field goal shooting (and 1-for-9) from three-point range in the fourth with eight turnovers. James accounted for 11 points, five rebounds, seven assists and a steal in those 11 minutes.

    And here’s the other number Laker observers will be watching as long as this minute control experiment goes: When LeBron was on the floor, the Lakers outscored Phoenix by 23 points. When he wasn’t, they were outscored by 16.

    You’d probably ignore the limits, too.

    “We were dragging our feet there for the better part of the first half,” Ham said. “And, you know, things weren’t clicking. We weren’t making shots, especially from three.

    “He has that that spirit, that intensity to put the team on his shoulders. And I had timeouts to play with. And so I went to him. I said, ‘How we feeling? What do we want to do?’ And he answered my question and I saw the result.”

    Ham had three timeouts available to him going into the fourth quarter, using two of them and getting another stoppage when the Suns challenged a foul call on Kevin Durant late in the game. And James had the biggest plays of the night, driving the lane on back-to-back possessions, sandwiched around a Durant miss, for baskets that gave L.A. a 95-91 edge with 41 seconds left.

    “He (Ham) asked me if I could go the quarter,” James said. “I look at the time and score and what was going on in the game. And it was an easy answer for myself. I know how much work I’ve put in to be able to play quarters or whatever the case may be. And I understand that we definitely have a system put in place, but tonight called for me to try to go outside of the box.

    “I felt very fresh going on the stretch, not long as so many minutes beforehand, before the fourth quarter. The coach trusted me, and I had to go out and prove it.”

    The great ones are easy to trust. Sometimes, of course, you have to make sure they don’t talk you out of what makes the most sense.

    “When you get the competitive juices flowing, and you’ve got two all-time greats on the floor battling and going back and forth like that, it’s hard to sit out on something like that,” Ham said.

    “He never ceases to amaze us. And he cares. He cares. That’s why you see this type of stat line. He’s laying it all out for his team, in year 21. I just hope a lot of these young pros out here are looking and seeing what he’s doing off the court, pre-game preparation, in-game impact, post-game recovery and his own private sessions of making sure his body is functioning and not just functional but functioning at a high level.”

    The Lakers don’t play again until Sunday in Sacramento, which was a factor in rolling the dice with this one. And the suspicion is that instead of a hard and fast minutes limit, James’ usage might depend in part on the surrounding schedule.

    It may also depend on his teammates, and how well they pull their weight. This, right now, is an issue. Anthony Davis provided 30 points and 12 rebounds Thursday night and D’Angelo Russell added 14 and five assists. But the Lakers are still searching for cohesion continuity with a roster that does have a lot of new parts.

    “That’s okay,” James said, “because I know there’s no way we should be where I want us to be right now.”

    But this may be a delicate balancing act. The victories do matter early in the season, especially if you take the new in-season tournament seriously. But the objective is to make sure James, and Davis as well, are fully functional when the games mean the most.

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    ​ Orange County Register