May 29, 2024

They all had conversations with Christian Wood about becoming a better defender, about how his size and length at 6-foot-10 with long arms could be used on defense and how he had to commit to play defense and not just offense.

Wood heard it from Lakers coach Darvin Ham, vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka and teammates LeBron James, Anthony Davis and D’Angelo Russell when he signed in September as a free agent.

The plan to elevate his defense was put to the test Thursday night when the Lakers asked Wood to try to defend one of the NBA’s most lethal offensive weapons in the Suns’ 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant.

Wood took on the job in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ home opener at Arena and held his own just enough against the dangerous Durant.

After Durant went 4 of 11 in the fourth, scoring just nine points and turning the ball over three times with Wood as his primary defender, Ham said he shouted Wood out in the locker room for a job well done.

Yes, Durant finished the game with 39 points, but he wasn’t a force in the fourth quarter and Wood, with plenty of help from Davis, James and rest of his teammates, took on the challenge and lived to tell about it.

I thought he did about as good as anyone can do,” Ham said of Wood. “He made a commitment to me when we signed him that that is a part of his game that he wants to get better at. And with his length, his agility, he’s able to contest at a high rate.

“… With Christian, in particular, his length and his ability to contest and his focus, he’s trying to be good on that end of the floor. We saw he was in a good rhythm. He was getting some huge defensive rebounds. And so I decided to go with him and throw him in the deep end of the pool.”

Wood did not have a strong offensive night, missing five of his shots and scoring just seven points. He scored just two points in the fourth quarter, missing three of his four shots.

But the player more known for his offense dug in on defense in the fourth, playing all 12 minutes while guarding Durant.

Wood, who was a plus-17 in the fourth quarter, didn’t want to let Ham or his teammates down, even if the assignment was a tough one.

The Lakers' Anthony Davis blocks a shot by Eric Gordon during the fourth quarter at Thursday.

The Lakers’ Anthony Davis blocks a shot by Eric Gordon during the fourth quarter at Thursday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“It was a big assignment,” Wood said. “I accepted the challenge. My teammates trusted me, Bron trusted me, AD trusted me. He was big in double-teams. I feel like [Davis] altered some of [Durant’s] shots. … Just being big, showing length.”

Wood also had six rebounds in the fourth, all on the defensive end.

That was another sigh of how far he has come as a defensive player.

“I told Christian when I called him over, ‘This is the balance in your game that people need to see,’” Ham said. “And once he continues to get more confident on that end of the floor and his confidence gets boosted by his ability to just be assertive, be smart and just to help us finish possessions defensively, it’s just gonna take him to a whole new level.”

Wood said he had put his trust in Ham and he didn’t want to let his coach down.

“He said he was going to throw me in the fire,” Wood said. “We were getting beat on the boards early in the game, so he told me to go in there and rebound. My shot wasn’t falling. But he told me to impact the game in other ways and I think I did that tonight.”

Lakers D-up in the fourth

When the outcome of the game was in doubt during the fourth quarter, the Lakers stood tall on defense.

They limited the Suns to just 25% shooting, 12.5% from three-point range. They forced them into nine turnovers and gave up just 11 points.

That obviously was the difference in the game.

“It was just our activity,” Ham said. “Obviously getting back in transition, getting in front of the ball, our activity…Obviously, KD was drawing a ton of attention. Crowding him, trying to have a guy shifted over, what we call flood, some people call it a tilt. But again, like I said, making him see bodies. And then our activity behind that. Guys shifted, denying him, mixing up different things off the ball and ultimately holding them to one possession, forcing turnovers or holding them to one possession. And it worked out.”

Lakers’ three-point shooting woes

The Lakers were way off the mark from three-point range, going 5 of 29 from three, for 17.2%.

No Laker made more than one three-pointer.

James hit 1 of 5, Russell hit 1 of 7 and Gabe Vincent hit 0 of 5.

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