LOS ANGELES -- Playing in their first home playoff game in eight years, the Los Angeles Lakers looked like a true championship contender for the first time in a while.
L.A., the No. 7 seed, won 109-95 on Thursday night to take a 2-1 lead in its first-round matchup against the No. 2-seeded Phoenix Suns, with Anthony Davis (34 points, 11 rebounds) and LeBron James (21 points, nine assists) looking like the dynamic duo that led the Lakers to an NBA title last year.
After right leg injuries to Davis and a right ankle injury for James caused the pair to miss a combined 63 games in the regular season, and the Lakers struggled mightily reintegrating their stars -- once dropping eight out of 10 games from late April through early May -- the team has clearly turned a corner.
The Suns and Lakers tangled horns in the first half of Game 3, with Davis hyperextending his left knee on a chase-down block of Suns star Devin Booker and L.A. taking just a three-point lead into the break. That's when James, who had parked himself on the perimeter for much of the series up to that point, changed his approach.
"I wasn't reading the game like I would like to in the first half," said James, who scored 10 points in the third quarter as the Lakers outscored the Suns by that same margin. "Came back into the locker room, made some mental adjustments for me individually that I felt like would work for our team, and we were able to spark a run in the third."
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James' effort made all the difference.
"He changed the whole game," Vogel said after L.A. won for the eighth time in its past nine games. "His mindset just reversed the whole course of tonight's game."
James, 36, scored on five of his seven drives to the hole on Thursday, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The stat was significant, not just for the control it gave L.A. over the momentum, but also for the contrast it was to Games 1 and 2, when James had just two drives to the hoop, scoring once.
"Obviously, it's been a rough year on me as far as physically with my ankle and dealing with that and still trying to get it where it was before the injury," James said. "But every day is a step forward, and I'm going to continue to put the work into with my treatment around the clock, getting it to where it was before the injury."
Davis followed suit, pushing through a visible limp without asking out of the game.
"It's the playoffs. It's rare that I'm going to come out of a game," Davis said. "Landed awkwardly, tried not to fall on Book. Guess I might have hyperextended it a little bit.
"Just keeping it warm, keeping it loose and wanted to keep going. It felt fine throughout the rest of the game. Really didn't have any problems with it. ... It was all full of adrenaline, so we'll see how I feel tomorrow. Get some treatment and get some treatment Saturday and be ready to go Sunday."
Vogel said that Davis' tenacity was second only to James' tactical shift.
"We needed it," he said of Davis. "We needed him to stay in there to get this W. He knew that. He was going to do whatever it took for us to get this W. And to play through pain, to play through, I mean, he's limping up and down the floor a few times. We were talking to the staff and the medical team like, 'Maybe we gotta get him out.' And they're saying he's good to go, it's safe, it's just playing through pain. And just a tough, tough performance by AD."
It has been a tough turn of events for the Suns, owners of the second-best record in basketball during the regular season. After winning Game 1, they have not only lost two in a row, but saw Thursday devolve into a laugher, falling behind by as many as 22 points. Two of their players -- Booker and Jae Crowder -- were ejected in the final minute.
Booker was called for a flagrant foul 2 for pushing an airborne Dennis Schroder to the ground with 35.4 seconds remaining.
"My mom raised me right," said Schroder, who scored 20 points, when asked if he might have gotten under Booker's skin, prompting the foul. "When somebody talks to me first, I'm gonna talk back. It don't matter who it is. If somebody talks to me disrespectfully, I'm going to do the same thing, so at the end of the day, we're going to battle then.
"Nobody's going to disrespect me. The end of the day, I just talked back and somebody took it too sensitive and fouled me."
Crowder was called for a technical foul and ejected while the officials finished up reviewing the Booker foul on replay.
Crowder, too, had reason to be frustrated, shooting just 2-for-9 from the field (1-for-7 from 3) and losing for the 15th time in 18 career playoff games facing off against James.
The Lakers star toyed with Crowder in the fourth quarter, deliberately yo-yoing the ball through his legs on an isolation possession, bringing the crowd of 7,825 fans to its feet. Later, James posted up the Phoenix forward before slipping past him with a spin move and scoring on a pretty reverse layup to push the Lakers' lead to 91-70 with 7 minutes, 32 seconds remaining.
"For me and for our ballclub, we always try to make plays where we can get each other excited, we can get our fans involved, get our fans excited about it. Because it just brings so much excitement to the game," James said. "Plays can be momentum swings that can work in our favor. So, that was one of those instances where we had an opportunity to make a momentum play and we were able to deliver."