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Three Things to Know: Suns “kicking a**,” have little trouble picking apart Lakers

Charlotte Hornets v Phoenix Suns

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 19: Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talks with Chris Paul #3 and Devin Booker #1 during the second half of the NBA game against the Charlotte Hornets at Footprint Center on December 19, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Hornets 137-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) Suns “kicking ass,” have little trouble picking apart Lakers

“They’re kicking ass.”

That was Lakers’ acting coach David Fizdale’s assessment of the Suns. It’s spot on.

“The way we’re playing, I believe this team is better than the team last year that went to the Finals, to be honest with you.” Suns’ center Deandre Ayton said postgame.

Everything that propelled the Suns with the best record in the NBA — versatility, depth, balance, guys selflessly playing for one another — were things the Lakers could not match Tuesday night in a nationally televised game. After a rough shooting first half, Phoenix stuck with its plan and pulled away in the second half, picking up a comfortable 108-90 win over Los Angeles.

We could use this space to pick apart the .500 Lakers — LeBron James played well, scoring 34 and getting downhill, but that’s about it for positives, and the AD-less Lakers defense is hard to watch — but this game was more a picture of what the Suns are doing right.

The Lakers (like a lot of teams) have been hampered by injuries (Anthony Davis’ knee) and by COVID protocols (Malik Monk, Avery Bradley, Austin Reaves). The Suns were there, too — they just got Devin Booker back after a seven-game absence due to a hamstring strain, but a deep and balanced Phoenix roster went 5-2 without him.

“I think a big part of it comes down to our team culture, how guys step into situations and we remain ourselves,” Cameron Johnson said. “You can see our identity on the court when we have everybody. It’s a group of guys that likes playing together and we play for each other.”

Before the game, Suns’ coach Monty Williams said his team needed to establish themselves in the paint early. Enter Deandre Ayton, who scored 11 of the first 13 Suns points, 12 in paint.

This is where the Suns’ versatility comes in — seven minutes into the game Fizdale went small, sitting DeAndre Jordan and using LeBron or Carmelo Anthony at center lineups. That doesn’t play Ayton off the floor — the Suns’ big man can switch onto LeBron or Russell Westbrook on the perimeter and hold his own defensively. On offense, the Suns set picks off the ball to force a switch and get a guard on Ayton (or JaVale McGee), then lob it into him for an easy bucket.

The Suns also have a balance — the floor is always spread, guys are always in the correct position. On offense, that allowed them to swing the ball to open shooters. This game might have been a blowout much earlier if Phoenix didn’t start the game shooting 0-of-9 then 3-of-20 from 3. Monty Williams’ message to his team was to stay true to who they are as a team and keep shooting — and the Suns hit eight of their next 16.

That balance also means there are always defenders back and in position, taking away easy transition buckets. The Lakers need those to thrive, but they started just 16.5% of their possessions in transition and had 15 fast break points on the night.

Phoenix stayed true to who they were Tuesday and the Lakers ultimately crumbled. Saturday comes the real test for Phoenix: Golden State on Christmas Day. A showdown of the NBA’s two best teams this season. The Warriors will challenge the Suns in a way these Lakers right now cannot.

2) Adam Silver makes it clear “No plans right now to pause the season”

The NHL extended its traditional holiday break for a few days to try and get ahead of the latest COVID-19 surge.

The NBA will not be following suit.

Adam Silver was clear about that on ESPN’s NBA Today.

This is not a surprise to regular readers of “Three Things,” we reported sources told us the same thing a few days ago. As Silver said, it’s not logical to think that if the league sends players home they will stay in and quarantine — players will go to the same indoor holiday parties, go to the same restaurants and clubs, and have the same exposure. And it’s not like in a week the virus will go away. (Yes, players are already going to those parties/clubs, but there is testing and structure now.)

The NBA will increase testing and bring back mask mandates after Christmas, although the COVID protocol/G-League shuffle teams have been engaged in the past few days is likely with us for a while as the league just powers through this.

But that’s the plan; the league will power through this.

3) Kemba Walker racked up some highlights during Knicks’ win

Kemba Walker wants more run, although I don’t know that scoring 21 points on 21 shots against the lowly Pistons is changed Tom Thibodeau’s mind.

But as the Knicks racked up a win, Walker racked up some highlights. There was the crossover and oop to Mitchell Robinson (who had an impressive game, 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting, plus 14 boards).

Then midway through the fourth, Walker drained a three and did a little shimmy.

Walker is getting run because the Knicks, like every other team, is battling COVID. But he’s making his case to get on the court a little more.

Highlight of the Night: Udonis Haslem gets standing “O,” then drains three

A Udonis Haslem sighting is snow leopard rare. The Heat legend has played 24 minutes across five games this season.

So when he entered Tuesday night’s blowout win over the Pacers, Heat fans gave him a standing ovation.

But that was nothing compared to the reaction when the 41-year-old drained a corner 3.

Miami was having fun with its blowout of Indiana

Last night’s scores:

Miami 125, Indiana 96
New York 105, Detroit 91
New Orleans 111, Portland 97
Dallas 114, Minnesota 102
Phoenix 108, LA Lakers 90
Washington at Brooklyn, postponed