LOS ANGELES — A buzz circulated through Staples Center in the fourth quarter. And it had nothing to do with Lonzo Ball’s new haircut.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns have played each other three times in less than a month, and there’s bad blood brewing between the two teams. For the third time, the two teams engaged in a contentious incident that nearly boiled over into a brawl with each new situation escalating more than the previous scrap. On Friday, as the Suns were on their way to their first win over the Lakers, a near fight broke out at Staples between the two teams.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a Laker who doesn’t back down, has been involved in the past two near-scuffles in this series this season and was at the center of Friday night’s shoving. As the Suns called timeout with 3 minutes, 17 seconds remaining with a nine-point lead before taking a 122-113 win, Caldwell-Pope and Suns point guard Tyler Ulis stood in front of each other, with neither player willing to move out of each other’s way.
Caldwell-Pope then slapped down on Ulis’ arm, and Ulis pushed Caldwell-Pope. Suns rookie Josh Jackson came sprinting over to where the two were near half court by the table before both sides were separated.
In the first meeting of the season between these teams, Booker and Larry Nance Jr. got into it. In the second game, Booker and Caldwell-Pope had words.
Besides getting a new haircut that went viral during the day, Ball kept his head as well. As things started to escalate, the rookie point guard smartly just kept walking toward the Lakers’ bench as the whole incident played out, wanting nothing to do with any potential trouble.
“It’s the NBA,” Ball said. “People ain’t really gonna fight. I ain’t trying to get no technical.”
While this isn’t anything near the Kobe Bryant-Raja Bell Lakers-Suns feud back in the day, Caldwell-Pope, Jackson and Ulis were all handed technical fouls as the two rebuilding teams that are far away from being playoff teams acted as if they were playing a Game 3 of a heated playoff series.
“It’s all false action,” Lakers small forward Brandon Ingram said when asked if a rivalry is brewing between the Lakers and Suns.
Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope get into a shoving battle, and Josh Jackson runs over to push Caldwell-Pope. Each receives a technical foul.
The painful truth for the Lakers (6-10) is that they’ve lost five of their past six games, with their only win coming at Phoenix on Monday. Their defense has been an issue in the past two games, particularly in the fourth quarter. And it was supposed to be Phoenix’s lack of defense that would be the story.
On Wednesday, the Lakers couldn’t stop Joel Embiid (career-high 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks) or the Philadelphia 76ers from scoring 32 points in the fourth quarter. On Friday, it was Devin Booker who had his way with the Lakers again. After dropping 36 points on them during the Lakers’ win in Phoenix on Monday, Booker went for 33 here, drilling six 3-pointers.
The Suns, humiliated by the Houston Rockets a night earlier when it surrendered 90 points in the first half, seemed to be able to score whenever it needed to in the fourth. The Suns (6-11) scored 33 points in the quarter to hold off the Lakers, who cut a 12-point deficit in the quarter to three before letting it slip away.
The near fracas and lack of defense overshadowed a brilliant second half by Kyle Kuzma, who continues his impressive rookie campaign and is getting better with every game. He scored 28 of his career-high 30 points after the break and finished with 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season. Kuzma, who has scored the most points in a game for any rookie thus far and is looking every bit like the steal of the draft, attacked the Suns and Booker like he smelled blood.
But the Lakers didn’t have enough in the fourth despite Ball playing the entire quarter. It was the first time he got to play in the fourth after sitting out the final quarter of the previous two games as Luke Walton went with a hot Jordan Clarkson down the stretch.
Ball played better than his last game against Philadelphia and contributed all across the board. But he could not get the Lakers to beat the Suns for a third straight time. Ball shot only 3-for-7 from the field, missing his lone 3-point attempt. He started the first half slow, but finished with six points, six assists, six rebounds and five steals.
In the second half, Ball hit the glass, drove the lane and threw a lob for a bucket to Brook Lopez. He also had a nice help block from behind while looking to push the pace more. But Ulis scored eight of his 15 points in the fourth, hitting several tough shots with a few coming over Ball.
Ingram, who continued to remain aggressive and in attack mode and finished with 17 points, picked up his fourth personal foul late in the third quarter and Walton put Ball in with Jordan Clarkson (four points) struggling. The game started to slip away from the Lakers and then the two teams nearly had a brawl toward the end.
“Standard [competitiveness], throw a few words at each other,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Getting in each other face. Just competitive. Not going to let anybody come in and try to push me around.”
The next and last time these two teams play each other is on Feb. 6 in Los Angeles.
“They’re young,” Caldwell-Pope said. “They are going to be aggressive. So just ain’t going to let them come in and try to punk you. Got to have that fight back.”