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The 4 Lakers who need to step up to beat the Suns without Anthony Davis

The Los Angeles Lakers season has been defined by untimely injuries, and their Game 4 loss to the Phoenix Suns was more of the same. Instead of grabbing a 3-1 series lead, the Lakers — already down Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — lost the game, 100-92, and may have lost Anthony Davis.

AD, who was already playing through a knee sprain, fell awkwardly on a botched layup seconds before halftime. He never reemerged from the tunnel and exited Staples Center without speaking to the media.

A dejected Lakers group was outscored 27-15 in the third quarter as the Suns found new life and eagerly pulled away.

Afterward, Frank Vogel revealed that Davis suffered a strained left groin and would undergo medical evaluations before an update would be provided on Monday. He’s listed as day-to-day.

“He’s one of the best players in the world, so you have to adjust,” Vogel said. The Lakers won’t have a lot of time to do that before Game 5 on Tuesday.

Los Angeles is used to playing shorthanded — especially without Davis, who missed 36 games in 2020-21. Vogel said the Lakers will “draw on” that experience going forward.

“We’ve been derailed this year, but at the same time, we’ve been through it,” reassured Kyle Kuzma.

The Lakers have repeatedly talked up a “next man up” mentality in the face of adversity. Now, that mindset will be put to the test deep in a playoff series against a No. 2 seed.

“Next man up,” LeBron reiterated postgame. “We’ve been like that all year, and we’re going to have to be like that in a hostile environment.”

For the Lakers to take back control of the series and return to Los Angeles with a 3-2 lead, here are those men who need to be next up.

Kyle Kuzma

Kuzma scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting in Game 4 (minus-13), raising his series average to … 5.3 points in 22 minutes per game.

Prior to Davis’ injury, Kuzma’s scoring output has been sporadic, at best, as the L.A. offense has sputtered overall. Kuzma scored two points through Games 1 and 2, leading me to ask Vogel if his squad needed the fourth-year forward to get more involved in the offense.

Kuzma has undergone a valuable evolution into a winning playmaker and hustler. Now, with Davis potentially sidelined, he knows he’s going to be in a position to generate more offense than usual.

“That just means I have the ball in my hands a little bit more, whether that means to score or make the right play like I always try to do,” Kuzma said when asked about his role should Davis miss time. “It’s not just, go out there and now I gotta score 30. … It’s going out there, being sound, being in the right spots. Get my teammates better and when I’m open, be aggressive.”

Kuzma averaged 14.4 points on 11.6 shot attempts in 16 games (12 starts) from April 12-May 12. The Lakers need that hooper in Game 5. Can he flip on the scoring switch without forcing the issue?

Dennis Schroder

If their best big man is out — and with zero ability to handle Deandre Ayton, regardless — Kuzma expects the Lakers to speed up the action.

Without AD, Schroder will be promoted from third to second banana as a scorer. However, Dennis’ most valuable adjustment will be more abstract: If the Lakers try and open the game up, as Kuzma assumes, they’ll need Schroder to spearhead that movement.

Hours after I published a bunch of nice words about Schroder, he was badly outdueled by Chris Paul (18 points, nine assists, three steals). Schroder missed 10 of his 13 shots, including a deflating layup attempt that the entire greater Los Angeles area, especially LeBron, knew sealed the Lakers’ fate.

Paul (even while hobbled) can dictate pace as well as any point guard, perhaps ever. The Lakers will need Schroder to have a similar degree of influence over ball movement and tempo, and harness the floor general skills that he showed in April and May.

“If AD’s not out there, then we have to play a different style, a different brand of basketball,” Kuzma said. “It’s not just: ‘Throw it and look at Bron the whole time.’ … We’ve gotta just play basketball.”

The Suns play at one of the more methodical paces in the NBA, though the Lakers aren’t much faster. So far, this series has been played at an even slower rate.

The best way for the Lakers’ offense to get rolling is by (quickly) turning stops into scores, and I expect them to speed things up in Phoenix. Accordingly, they’ll need their speedy point guard to make that happen. (Frankly, if Schroder wants “top-tier” guard money, he should be roasting a one-shouldered CP3.)

Montrezl Harrell

Harrell was one of the lone positive contributors for the Lakers in Game 1. As a reward, he earned two straight DNPs. In Game 4, Trezz saw five minutes of action as Vogel “looked for a spark.”

Harrell was scoreless and didn’t attempt a field goal.

The Lakers haven’t quite been able to figure out whether to go big or small vs. Phoenix. Harrell has been lost in the shuffle. But, should Los Angeles pivot to small ball and/or run-and-gun, Harrell might suddenly factor into the game plan. After all, with or without Davis, the Lakers’ issues have been on the offensive end.

“We’re tailor-made to one type of basketball when AD’s out there,” Kuzma said. “We have to try to figure out more on the fly how we’re going to execute offensively and what is our DNA gonna be without that. … Defensively wasn’t our problem. We held them to 100 points.”

Harrell is the one Lakers big who can easily threaten 20 points on any given night. That could come in handy.

Based on his cryptic social media messages this week, he sounds ready to hoop.

LeBron James

Can James still win playoff games by himself?

“When I competed against the Miami Heat and either Wade or Bosh was out and there was more touches for Bron, that wasn’t always necessarily a good thing for my Pacers teams,” Vogel recalled Sunday.

At 36, LeBron remains the best player on Earth, but he isn’t 2013 LeBron or even Game 1, 2018 Finals LeBron, when he single-handedly dominated a high-stakes postseason game for four quarters.

Of course, he can still be spectacular.

However, he picks his spots more than ever, knowing that Davis can often carry the scoring burden.

If AD can’t go, James will have to strike a balance between pinpoint facilitation and aggressive scoring. Tall order? Yes. But nobody in the history of basketball has been better at doing that exact thing.

“It’s just going to be more opportunity for Bron, and obviously we need other guys to step up,” Vogel said. “Not one other guy. But everybody. It’s gotta be a group effort. We need contributions from everyone.”

In Game 4, LeBron posted a 25/12/6 line and produced a plus-6, despite the eight-point loss. He was superb in Games 2 and 3.

As always, the Lakers need to improve their minutes without James. But, for as well as LeBron has played, he has averaged 21.8 PPG vs. the Suns. That number is only passable if Davis is getting buckets.

“The best teacher in life experience,” James said. “Personally, I look forward to the challenge. However the hand is dealt, I’ll be ready to play. … For me, it’s putting our team in a position to be successful. It starts with my approach, it starts with my accountability. Trickles down to everybody else. These shoulders were built for a reason. … Win, lose, or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”