LeBron James continues to play at an otherworldly level — even Austin Reaves is utterly confounded by his brilliance. However, the Lakers had largely wasted the career-best “zone” James has enjoyed since early December.
Perhaps a telling quote here from Frank Vogel when asked about the Lakers performance in the 17 games without Anthony Davis. Not sure if he meant to throw shade at the Russell Westbrook acquisition, but it could be interpreted that way ("those guys" = LeBron/AD, obviously) pic.twitter.com/264lZadWco
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 25, 2022
Tuesday was a good day for the Lakers. Davis triumphantly returned from his MCL sprain, and an obviously inspired Lakers group played four quarters of quality basketball (a rarity). It resulted in a 106-96 victory over the depleted Nets. It marked the Lakers' second road win against a team over .500.
Here are five takeaways from AD's return — the 16th game he, LeBron, and Russell Westbrook have suited up together.
On the opening possession of the game, Davis threw down a lob from LeBron.
Lebron to AD like the good old days 😎
Anthony Davis(15.5) with 6pt in the 1st pic.twitter.com/4SEwhvo4SY
— ClutchPoints Betting (@CPBetting) January 26, 2022
After his first seven minutes of action, AD had three blocks. Above all else — incidentally, where the Lakers literally need AD to exist — Davis' tallness was essential.
The Lakers have pivoted to small-ball, to mixed results. On the one hand, it's ignited electric offensive stretches and given the team a semblance of an identity. On the downside, their defense, rebounding, and stylistic versatility have suffered.
AD's length doesn't just offer rim protection and finishing — he gives the Lakers more flexibility. With him, they can maintain their newfound identity while having the capability to play big-ish when need be. A frontcourt of AD, LeBron, and Stanley Johnson/Carmelo Anthony is formidable against any opponent.
“I think whenever you get a player like AD back, it definitely changes your team. Not just on the offensive side, but on the defensive side,” Westbrook said. “He’s able to do things that people can’t do at his size and definitely gives a team a boost getting a chance to see everybody out on the floor, at least hopefully as we move forward towards the tail end of the season.”
P.S.: Rebounding is still an issue. The Lakers were out-boarded 54-33, including 18-5 on the offensive glass.
The Lakers need to commit to a rotation. It's too late to tinker. Kendrick Nunn — if he ever plays — will shake things up a bit, but until then, Frank Vogel needs to lock everybody into precise roles. That's how you rattle off wins.
Everybody slides into place when AD is out there. Vogel smartly kept Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza — who both started the past four games — off the floor, along with DeAndre Jordan, Wayne Ellington, and Kent Bazemore. Johnson (+10) played 29 minutes, Reaves (+13) played 25, a scorching Malik Monk (+14) played 28. Carmelo (13 points), Talen Horton-Tucker, and Avery Bradley each saw between 19-24 minutes of action. This should be the Lakers' rotation going forward (Bradley's inclusion is debatable).
The Lakers played centerless ball with Davis out. The scoring load was eased off Russ (15 points) — who is no longer a dependable third star.
“The ability to mix pitches with him being a 5-man and a rim protector and then going centerless when he’s out is something that we envision will be really good for us and give us a great opportunity to make a late push in the regular season and into the playoffs,” said Vogel.
— The Lakers Review (@TheLakersReview) January 26, 2022
“He just makes our team so much more complete, our length defensively, our ability to really get up in people's faces because we know we got him at the rim, or our ability to switch a lot of things because he can literally guard 1-through-5,” LeBron said. “Offensively, it just attracts another set of eyes off of myself, off of Russ, off of Melo, off of Malik. Off everybody, because he's such a dynamic player.”
The Lakers can be a solid defensive team with Davis. Without him, they are hopelessly atrocious.
AD's offense will come around — he had just eight points in Brooklyn. More importantly, the Lakers held the Nets to 41.6% shooting (25.9% from 3) and 18 points in the fourth quarter.
“I thought he really changed things for us defensively at the rim with his hands, with his deflections … his anchor to our defense is something that’s been sorely missed,” Vogel said.”
Another upside: fast-break points. The Lakers want to push the pace and run. Right away, Davis' ability to turn stops into easy buckets was apparent.
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 26, 2022
The Lakers had nine blocks, compared to two from Brooklyn. They outscored the Nets 27-9 in fast-break points.
“If we can get stops and get [teams] in the open court, we can be really dangerous,” Vogel stated.
Notably, there was one standout transition sequence that Davis did not directly impact: LeBron James “channeling (his) inner Ed Reed” and taking two “pick-sixes” to the house to ice the victory via thunderous slams.
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 26, 2022
“As much as I would love to give A.D. credit, he was not on the floor when I did that – he ran on the floor after I did that when the timeout happened,” James cracked. “But when you’ve got an every-year potential Defensive Player of the Year on the floor…you can definitely get away with some things you wouldn’t try if he’s not out on the floor because you know you got the protection behind you. Or in front of you.”
4) AD looks and feels good
As for AD himself — the eight-time All-Star did look a tad leaner than when we last saw him on Dec. 17.
Davis bulked up during the off-season — perhaps to counteract the “soft” narrative, but a curious choice nonetheless coming off a season of lower-leg ailments.
The revised regimen didn't seem to pay off. While statistically elite compared to the average player, Davis was more lumbering than usual during the first two months. His jump shot alarmingly deteriorated. He didn't have the same bounce that catapulted the Lakers to a title in 2020.
According to Jared Dudley, AD asked him how to shed weight during a rehab stint (Dudley lost about 40 pounds while nursing a knee injury last season). Davis said postgame that he was lifting weights during his recovery, but he seemed swifter.
Encouragingly, both he and Vogel acknowledged that his minutes could quickly increase.
“For the most part I felt fine, felt great out there, and the first couple minutes the adrenaline took, and after that, the wind caught up to me,” Davis said. “When I caught my second wind, I was fine for the rest of the game.”
"Tried to do it on the defensive end to help my team. Physically I felt fine, the knee felt fine." @AntDavis23 spoke with @LakersReporter following his long-awaited return to the #LakeShow. pic.twitter.com/vivLHZPw2W
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 26, 2022
“I don't know about the whole minute restriction thing, I think for me that might come off,” he added. “Might tell [coach Vogel] I don't need that, but we'll see.”
“Yeah, 24 minutes. We’d probably like to play him a little bit more,” Vogel said. “Hopefully we can get there. But there’s gonna be a build-up.
A matchup with Joel Embiid on Thursday looms — the first leg of a back-to-back. Clint Capela is Friday.
It sounds simplistic, but the Lakers have been plagued by inconsistent energy as much as anything this season. That would normally be understandable during the regular season for a team comprised of accomplished vets, except these Lakers happen to need wins.
Ultimately, it's not about one game. The overarching question is: can Los Angeles string together multiple promising performances in a row, and do so against tough competition? The novelty of AD's return will quickly wear off. The schedule only gets tougher.
Simply by penciling Davis back in the lineup, though, the Lakers made significant strides.
“His presence alone makes our team so much more complete,” said LeBron.