After scoring a season-high 42 points to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a convincing 123-110 win over the Phoenix Suns, Anthony Davis said he’s enjoying the spot his team currently finds itself in: slotted for the play-in tournament with just four games left to play.
“It’s been fun, to be honest,” Davis said Sunday after the Phoenix win snapped a stretch in which the defending champs lost eight out of 10. “We were a great team last year, and this is the first time since I’ve been here that we ran into a challenge. This is a different challenge for us.”
As much of a challenge it was for the Lakers to keep their heads above water while Davis missed nine weeks with a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in his right leg and LeBron James missed six weeks with a high right ankle sprain, things got even worse once their superstars returned.
L.A. went 1-5 in Davis’ first six games back. One of those losses, to Washington, Davis labeled a “must-win.” Two more of those losses, to Sacramento and Toronto, were James’ first two games back. And after L.A. went 0-2 and James said he felt a “sharp pain” in his ankle that he hadn’t experienced during his ramp-up, he shut it down again, missing the Lakers’ past four games and not even being present for three of them as he rested his ankle.
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Not to mention Dennis Schroder being out the past week because of the league’s health and safety protocols, and injuries causing Talen Horton-Tucker (calf strain) and Kyle Kuzma (lower-back tightness) to miss games.
However, with Davis hitting another gear — he became the first player in franchise history to record at least 42 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks in the same game — with that stat line against a Suns team with the second-best record in the league, the Lakers have found life again.
“He sets a tone for us with his assertiveness,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “When he comes to play … looking to dominate, then everybody else gets a little bit more air in their chest and gets more confidence in what we’re going to be able to do that night.”
L.A. is currently No. 7 in the Western Conference — a full game behind No. 6 Portland — with home back-to-back games against the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets (on championship banner night) and road back-to-back games against the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans remaining.
If the Lakers go 4-0 while the Blazers go 2-2 (possible, considering Portland has Houston, Utah, Phoenix and Denver remaining), L.A. can overtake the No. 6 seed and avoid the play-in tournament.
Seeking that perfection with their backs against the wall is giving the Lakers a dress rehearsal for the playoffs, according to Vogel.
“I think that’s the silver lining that no one is really talking about right now is that the last couple weeks, the last two games, we’ve been playing really every-possession-matters-type of basketball, which is what the playoffs are like,” Vogel said. “That’s what playoff intensity is [all] about. And sometimes you have a playoff seeding locked up, and you kind of coast into it. You’re not as sharp as you need to be going into the playoffs.
“But the urgency that we’ve been forced to play with, I think, has come out in Anthony’s performance the last couple of games, and I think it’s going to benefit our whole group.”
They hope to have their group back whole before the regular season closes. Vogel said the team could welcome Schroder back for one or both of Indiana and New Orleans games on the final road trip.
And James, who was back on the sideline for the Suns game and seemingly on his feet the entire game cheering the team on, sounds like he’s on the cusp of a return himself.
“What I seen from LeBron today … he’s … he’ll be fine,” Davis said. “Trust me. He’ll be fine.”
While Vogel did not provide a target date that James could be back in the mix, he sounded confident that the four-time MVP would be in the lineup before the regular season ends in a week.
“Hopefully we have enough time for [his rhythm and timing] to pick up very quickly,” Vogel said. “I’ve tended to learn to have confidence in LeBron James in situations like that.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope detailed what the team has seen out of James while he’s been on the mend.
“I feel like he’ll be playoff-ready,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Just seeing his workouts, he’s really putting in that work getting himself back together 100%. He’s showing it in his workout. Going hard in drills, dunking the ball, so just seeing that we’re very excited.”
It’s a feeling that Davis was confident would not be shared by whichever higher-seeded team ends up having to face off with L.A. in the postseason.
“I mean, we know that we’re confident against anybody we match up against, especially when we were fully healthy. That’s our mindset,” Davis said. “Other teams, you’ve got to prepare for just because we’re fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, whatever we are, we’re going to come out and fight. And I think teams know that.
“They know that just because we’re a lower seed we’re not going to back down from anybody, we’re going to come out and play Lakers basketball, and I think teams know that and feel that as well.”
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