Anthony Davis is back.
Are the Lakers?
Davis, the oft-injured, All-NBA forward made his anticipated return to the lineup on Wednesday after missing the last 20 games with a foot injury. He scored 21 points. He pulled down 12 rebounds. He blocked four shots. He played 26 minutes, coming off the bench for the first time since the ‘13-14 season, helping the Lakers pick up a win over the Spurs.
“A-plus,” said Darvin Ham. “I thought he was phenomenal.”
Said Thomas Bryant, “His presence, his dominance, everybody feels it.”
Davis checked in eight minutes into the first quarter. Early on, he looked uncertain. “The first 30 seconds to a minute, I was just kind of testing the waters,” said Davis. His first shot, a step back 20-footer, missed. A few possessions later, he split a pair of free throws. That first make, said Davis, got him into rhythm. He ran faster. Cut harder. He waited for his foot to ache. It never did. “That was kind of the ultimate test for me,” said Davis. “Just seeing if something flares up, if I feel any pain, whatever … when I didn’t [have] anything. I just wanted to start playing and it felt really comfortable.”
It showed. In the final five seconds of the first, Davis swatted away shots from Tre Jones and Doug McDermott. His offense got going in the second quarter. He hit a three from the top of the circle. On the next possession, a dunk. Later in the quarter Davis connected on a turnaround jumper over Zach Collins. “He just makes the game look so easy,” said Ham. “He takes so much pressure off us.”
It wouldn’t be Davis, or the Lakers, without one moment of terror. Late in the third quarter, Davis elevated for a halfcourt heave. Collins, awkwardly attempting to contest the shot, stepped underneath him. Davis fell, and immediately grabbed at his right ankle. The crowd gasped. Teammates rushed over. From the sidelines, Ham felt weak. Said Ham, “I almost fainted.”
But Davis got up. “I was fine,” said Davis. “Foot was fine, ankle was fine. Body feels good.” An early fourth quarter jumper gave the Lakers a one-point lead. Davis’s defense helped hold San Antonio to 37.7% shooting. His presence opened the floor up for the Lakers shooters. Ham’s advice: “Just play basketball,” said Ham. “The ball finds energy.”
One win—especially one over San Antonio, which has visions of Victor Wembanyama—isn’t cause for celebration. The Lakers are 19–23 and if the season ended today they would be in the lottery. But they are also a game out of the final play-in spot and three games back of the No. 4 spot. And they are beginning to arm up.
Davis’s injury was serious. It is serious. He had a bone spur. And a stress reaction. Surgery was considered. It took five doctors and foot specialists just to figure out how to properly deal with it. When he hurt it, back on December 16, Davis described the pain as “nine out of ten.” He has received shockwave and bone stimulation therapy that has left him pain free. For now.
But if Davis can stay healthy, the Lakers have at least the potential to be formidable. James has been brilliant. Dennis Schröder fits. Bryant is one of the best value contracts in the NBA. Russell Westbrook is still prone to some head-scratching decisions but has settled into a sixth-man role.
And there’s Rui Hachimura. When Davis checked in on Wednesday, the crowd roared. Most were cheering for Davis. Some were welcoming Hachimura, who checked in with him. His debut was strong. He scored 12 points. He collected six rebounds. He played solid defense. “Seamless fit,” was how Ham described him. When Hachimura, who was acquired from Washington this week for Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks, arrived in L.A. he was given an iPad with the Lakers’ playbook. On Wednesday morning, they reviewed it. On Wednesday night, Ham was running post-up plays for Hachimura that he usually runs for Davis.
“He doesn’t force anything,” said Ham. “The kid plays the right way.”
James has been on a scoring binge of late. He scored 37 points in Sunday’s win over Portland. He scored 46 in Tuesday’s night’s loss to the Clippers. Against the Spurs, James pivoted to playmaker. He took 20 shots, just the second time this month he has taken 20 or less. He handed out 11 assists. During the Lakers 32–22 fourth quarter run, James’s playmaking was the difference. He found Schröder for a three. Then Max Christie. He fed a cutting Bryant for a thunderous dunk.
“His main objective is to set the table for his teammates and he’s always been a guy that prides himself on playing the right way,” said Ham. “The more able bodies, able, capable bodies that we put around him, he’s not going to force the issue. He’s not selfish. When he has it going, yeah, he’s going to be aggressive and assertive to the rim to score. But in general, he’s a guy that’s going to set the table [and] put his teammates in a position to succeed.”
Can they? The Lakers went 10–10 with Davis out of the lineup. In the last few weeks they have beaten Atlanta, Sacramento and Memphis. Now Davis is back, Hachimura is here and Ham suddenly has a rotation that goes eight or nine deep. And L.A. still might not be done dealing. There’s some talent on the Lakers roster. And the confidence they can play with anyone.
“It’s just about us going out and doing the things we need to do,” said Davis. “No matter who we’re playing, we feel like we can beat any team … this team is a resilient team and they’ve shown that over the past weeks, winning games against big teams. So we always have our swag, we always have our confidence and this is about us going on the floor and showing it.”