In a stretch that has forced some to recalculate the Lakers’ potential, Davis has averaged 32.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, reaffirming his place among the NBA’s best players.
If the Lakers were going anywhere, it’s because Davis was going to take them there.
But another fluke play — this time leading to a right foot injury — knocked Davis out of the game and reiterated how narrow the team’s path is moving forward.
Narrow, though, doesn’t mean impossible, and for the second time this season, the Lakers beat Denver in Los Angeles, knocking off one of the best teams in the West 126-108.
Russell Westbrook fueled the Lakers’ sprinting pace, James was a force in transition and the Lakers’ role players seemed to all take turns keying huge moments with Davis hurting.
“Russ’ motor is second to none,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the win.
Seven Lakers, led by James’ 30, scored at least 10 points. Thomas Bryant, tapped to fill-in at center for Davis, scored a season-high 21 points. It’s the most points for Bryant since he scored 21 on Jan. 3, 2021.
Westbrook had 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — his second triple-double of the season and the first Laker to have more than one triple-double in a season as a bench player. “When we play that way, it’s hard to beat us,” Westbrook said.
Davis appeared to injure his foot in the first quarter on a reverse layup, clipping the outside of his right foot against the inside of Nikola Jokic’s leg. He continued playing throughout the first half, finishing with 10 points, before staying in the locker room after halftime.
Ham said Davis would undergo further evaluation Saturday.
Bryant replaced Davis to start the third quarter — not the kind of lineup change some Lakers fans have been looking for.
Slow starts, like the one the Lakers had against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, have cost the Lakers in some of their tightest losses. And if you’re trying to fix consistent slow starts, there’s a pretty obvious option — change up the names Lawrence Tanter announces alongside James and Davis pregame.
But despite data showing that the Lakers’ current starting five has struggled, Ham said he’s not actively looking to make a change.
“The NBA is a little bit different, man. You can’t have that rotary door within your lineup. You have to give a lineup a chance to grow and be in rhythm together. You get to moving bodies in and out of your lineup, it creates an imbalance,” Ham said before Friday night’s game. “… We have to be smart about all of that. We have a lineup that we trust and we’ll see. Going forward, things could change, God forbid, due to injury or some reason. But as of right now, we’re gonna be solid.”
Other lineups, namely one with four starters and Austin Reaves in for Beverley, have been more effective, albeit in smaller samples.
Ham, though, has said that he likes the defensive attitude Beverley and Schroder bring with the first unit.
“It’s been phenomenal defensively,” he said after a light practice Thursday. “That’s what we want to do. We want to set a tone. And their matchups, both of those guys can guard multiple positions. And I just want to keep setting that tone defensively to get us back to being a top-10 defensive team.”
The Lakers’ starters are allowing 101.8 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com lineup data. The Lakers, as a team, are allowing 111.7 points per 100 possessions, 12th in the league.
Ham said he thought Beverley and Schroder would get on track offensively, and Friday, with Davis out, both delivered. Beverley scored 10 — his most this season — and Schroder was aggressive in scoring 15.
And the Lakers got out to a much better start against Denver, hanging with the NBA’s second-best offense before opening the game up late in the third and into the fourth.
When team’s lose a player like Davis, they talk about things like “next-man up mentality” and “not one person filling” any void. They’re the usual cliches that cloak the disappointment from the injury.
But with players from a 20-year veteran like James all the way down to rookie Max Christie making plays to help the Lakers win, those words weren’t hallow Friday.
They’re why the Lakers won.