PHOENIX — After an angry Luke Walton held nothing back on his team’s poor defense at the morning team meeting, the Los Angeles Lakers responded to their coach and rode a dominant second quarter to their first victory of the season.
“We could feel his anger,” Lance Stephenson told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin of Walton’s disposition during the morning meeting at the team hotel. “We had to get that W.”
LeBron James earned his first win as a Laker and helped halt a three-game losing streak with a near triple-double of 19 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in the Lakers’ 131-113 win over the Phoenix Suns.
“It feels great; it’s a win, period,” said James, who got to rest in the fourth quarter with the Lakers up by as much as 27. “But it feels good for us to know what we’ve been doing over training camp [and] in these first few games to continue to get better.”
“We’re very talented offensively,” James added. “But I think it’s always going to start with our defense.”
Seven Lakers finished in double figures as Los Angeles overwhelmed the Suns 44-24 in the second quarter despite playing without suspended starters Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram. The Lakers’ defense, which had surrendered an average of 131.6 points in the first three games, forced nine of the Suns’ 20 turnovers for 15 points in the second quarter.
Stephenson — who was key in the victory after also coming close to a triple-double with 23 points, eight assists and eight rebounds — said Walton deserved an assist for the Lakers’ defensive focus and increased communication.
“We talked a lot on defense,” said Stephenson, who provided the Lakers with a spark with eight points and 4-for-4 shooting from the field in the second quarter. “We watched a lot of film yesterday and today, and Coach was very mad at us and he got on us about our defense and talking on D on the defensive end and being very unselfish. So, I mean we took care of business tonight.”
Asked how irate Walton was at the morning meeting at the team hotel, Stephenson replied, “Oh, he was mad.”
“He came in today very mad, he yelled at us, he told us we’ve got to lock in on defense and play unselfish basketball and get a W.”
Walton was furious with the officiating on Monday night after the Lakers dropped a 143-142 overtime loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs. Walton criticized officials for what he and the Lakers felt were several missed calls, and was fined $15,000 by the NBA on Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, for the first time this season, the Lakers went to the line more times in a game than their opponent, shooting 23 free throws to the Suns’ 21. They went into the game focused on reducing their fouling, as well as defending, rebounding and sharing the ball.
JaVale McGee also continued to exceed expectations, posting his best game as a Laker with 20 points, six rebounds and four blocks in 25 minutes. McGee battled with No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, who had 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks for Phoenix, which lost Devin Booker to a strained hamstring late in the third quarter.
Through four games, McGee is averaging 16.2 points, seven rebounds and 3.2 blocks in 24 minutes, and he made it clear afterward that he can play more and is not restricted by his asthma condition.
“This is what I want to say about the asthma,” McGee said when asked about it after the game. “Stop bringing that up like I’m out here wheezing and having asthma attacks. I’ve never had an asthma attack in my life. I feel like that’s definitely lowered my value as a basketball player.
“People say, ‘Oh he only can play 20 minutes because he has asthma.’ No. there’s a lot of people with asthma in the league. I feel like somebody stamped that excuse on me like, ‘Cool, we can play him low minutes because he has asthma.'”
McGee, who has not averaged more than 18.1 minutes per game in his previous six seasons, believes the narrative of him having to play in shorter stints due to asthma came while he spent three seasons in Denver from 2012 to 2015.
“Probably Denver because of altitude,” McGee said. “Anybody has a problem breathing in Denver.”
“They have asthma medicine,” he added. “There’s a reason I take it, so I don’t have asthma when I take my asthma medicine.”
The Lakers (1-3) will look to put together their first winning streak when the undefeated Denver Nuggets (4-0) visit on Thursday. Los Angeles will still be without Rondo, who is serving a three-game suspension, and Ingram, who is suspended for four games, for their roles in a fight with Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets on Saturday.
“I don’t feel like people have been looking at the first three games we played. We played against playoff teams,” said McGee, who also hit his first 3-pointer since the 2012-’13 season and second overall of his career. “Great playoff teams, too.
“So for us to only be together for a couple of months, I feel like we’re jelling extremely well. When we get to that threshold of greatness that we can be at, I feel like we’re going to be unstoppable.”