LOS ANGELES — When the second half of the Lakers’ 126-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night began, the Lakers had a new center. Thomas Bryant, not Anthony Davis, stepped onto the floor to face two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokić.
Davis, who suffered a right foot injury with 4:34 remaining in the first quarter, didn’t return from the locker room after halftime. He appeared to tweak his right foot while colliding with Jokić’s lower leg in midair on this reverse layup.
This is the play Davis got hurt on: 4:34 mark of the first quarter. Played the rest of the first half. https://t.co/74UphwQjOR
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) December 17, 2022
Davis subbed out at the 2:40 mark of the first quarter, and the Lakers’ medical staff tended to him on the bench. He returned in the second quarter, but struggled, scoring n points on 0-of-1 shooting, grabbing one rebound and turning the ball over twice in eight minutes. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, four rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block in 18 minutes. Once the adrenaline wore off during intermission, the pain kicked in. Davis received X-rays at halftime, according to Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, and will undergo further evaluation Saturday morning. (Davis left the arena without speaking to reporters).
“I don’t want to speak on it until I know exactly what’s going on,” Ham said. “I’ll know more tomorrow.”
At halftime, the Nuggets led the Lakers, 65-64. The second half began about as expected with Davis out: Denver raced out on a 9-2 run to take an eight-point lead. The deficit extended to 12 points with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter.
But then, something unexpected happened. Without their superstar, the Lakers rallied to close the quarter on a 26-9 run, surging in a similar fashion to Tuesday’s thriller against the Celtics. Unlike that game and several others this season, though, the Lakers finished the job in the fourth quarter, using a 22-9 run to ice a much-needed win over a strong Nuggets team.
“Just stepping up,” Ham said of his team’s performance. “We didn’t want that Boston loss to spill into future games. And it can. At the end of the day, our guys dug down deep.”
Seven Lakers players scored in double figures in one of their most impressive wins of the season. LeBron James led the way, scoring a game-high 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals in 36 minutes. Ham praised James’ team-first approach to empowering the locker room.
“He’s not trying to do it all,” Ham said. “He’s really trying to empower his teammates so they can be there to help him and help sustain his level of play right now, which is at a very very high point. So, he’s just not trying to do everything. He’s allowing other people to help him.”
And James certainly had a lot of help on Friday, even with Davis sidelined. Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, recording his second triple-double of the season and thriving in crucial fourth-quarter minutes. Bryant (21 points on 9-of-11 shooting) and Patrick Beverley (10 points on 4-of-6 shooting) posted season-high point totals. Austin Reaves scored 16 points, including 10 straight during the second quarter, earning him MVP chants. Dennis Schröder scored 15 points and looked more like his 2020-21 self. Rookie Max Christie drained two key 3s during the fourth-quarter run.
It was the type of all-around team effort that has been lacking all season, even as Davis re-emerged as one of the best players in the NBA this past month.
“We needed every single minute,” James said. “All the efforts that we got from them were huge.”
After the game, Ham gave the game ball to Bryant, who didn’t know he was starting the third quarter until moments before the ball was inbounded.
“That’s what this is supposed to be about. That is our identity.” pic.twitter.com/whYGyOxU8U
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 17, 2022
“Thomas, my hat’s off to him,” Ham said. “He’s a pro’s pro. Keeps himself ready; keeps himself right. … He came out and a really, really huge effort against a two-time MVP. Really helped us on both sides of the basketball, just his energy and activity. His no-quit mentality. We needed that. He was a huge burst for us.”
Bryant said he spoke with Davis afterward and he seemed “OK.”
“I’m gonna check up on him again just make sure big dog is all right,” Bryant said. “We need that man.”
Without knowing the severity or specifics of the injury, it’s unclear how much time Davis will miss, if any at all. It goes without saying that the Lakers are in big trouble if the injury is serious enough to require a lengthy absence.
But if there were ever a time the Lakers could afford Davis missing a handful of games, this might be it. The next two weeks of the Lakers’ schedule is road-heavy, but light on top-quality opponents. They face the Wizards, Suns (road), Kings (road), Hornets, Mavericks (road), Magic (road), Heat (road) and Hawks (road) through the rest of December. Only one of those teams (Phoenix) is more than five games over .500.
At the same time, Davis’ potential absence threatens a golden opportunity for Los Angeles to make up ground in the standings and ascend into the Play-In mix. Though the Lakers won without him on Friday, it will obviously be challenging for them to do so repeatedly without their best player.
“I mean obviously, health is always first when it comes to any of our teammates,” James said. “And it doesn’t change with AD. And that’s the most important. So when we know something, we’ll go from there, but we wish the best of news, for sure.”
Entering Friday’s game, Davis led the team in net rating (the Lakers are plus-3.1 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor), per NBA.com. He also led them in net rating differential (a difference of 11.0 points per 100 possessions), as they have a team-worst -7.9 net rating when he is off the floor. Essentially, that’s the difference between the Lakers playing like the 20-8 Milwaukee Bucks (3.3 net rating) versus the 7-22 Charlotte Hornets (-7.5 net rating).
The Lakers have yet to figure out how to tread water without Davis, though the win over Denver is a significant step in the right direction. There is no replacing him — especially with Wenyen Gabriel, Bryant and Damian Jones as the other big-man options. Gabriel, who’s been the Lakers’ second-best big this season, is day-to-day with a shoulder injury and could return Sunday vs. Washington. The Lakers desperately need his energy, interior defense and finishing around the rim.
He seemed to be the favorite to start in Davis’ absence, though Bryant, a more traditional center, may have secured that role after his breakout performance. At the same time, Bryant has played his best basketball next to Westbrook, so Ham might prefer to tie their minutes together off the bench.
Whenever Davis misses time, there is inevitably more on James’ broad shoulders. Lineups with James on the floor without Davis have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which must improve. The Lakers will likely play smaller with James at center — as they did last season and have at times this season — which forces them to play at a faster pace and with a five-out offensive scheme that can be difficult for most opposing defenses to defend. They used that lineup configuration during part of their fourth-quarter surge on Friday. James will likely operate out of the post and as a roller more, adopting a center-like style of play within certain lineups.
Of course, the downside to James at center is that the position is more physically taxing on him if its not deployed selectively. Additionally, the Lakers must rely even more on three-guard lineup that already left them thin in rim protection and defensive rebounding. This is a situation in which the Lakers will need the collective group to step up, as they did against the Nuggets.
That’s particularly true on defense, where Davis’ absence will be monumental for a group that already is lacking in size. If Bryant can sustain his play from Friday – the spirit and effectiveness, not necesarily the high scoring output – the Lakers might be able to get by temporarily with a center rotation of Bryant and Gabriel. But that’s assuming the team can figure out a way to replace Davis’ scoring, which has been their most reliable offensive weapon all season.
It’s unclear if Davis is going to miss any time, but if he is, James candidly shared that he’s not sure how a Davis-less Lakers group would look or perform.
“No, because we haven’t done it,” James said. “Our team is built on having pretty much everyone. So, we’ll make the adjustment accordingly. But we haven’t done it, so we don’t know what that would look like.”
(Top photo of Patrick Beverley, Russell Westbrook, Austin Reaves and Thomas Bryant: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)