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Anthony Davis’ MVP-level play made it easy to overlook the other positives in the Los Angeles Lakers’ recent run, but Tuesday’s 116-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was a reminder not to overthink.
None of the other developments during L.A.’s recently concluded 8-2 surge matter if Davis isn’t on the floor and wrecking shop to a historic degree.
AD left Tuesday night’s loss with flu-like symptoms in the first quarter and didn’t return. Though his teammates scrapped and provided the same support that’d been so quietly helpful during Davis’ incendiary stretch, it only served to postpone the inevitable, keeping the competition lively until, appropriately, the Cavs’ own transcendent star, Donovan Mitchell, subdued it. He finished with a game-high 43 points, including 17 in a fourth quarter punctuated by shots like this.
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The Lakers had no answer, not even from James, who came in with a 17-2 record against his former team and only one loss at Cleveland in his previous nine visits.
It’s certainly no grand revelation to say Davis is singularly important to the Lakers’ success. That link exists between every team and its best players. It was still illuminating to see Los Angeles get many of the same supporting performances from its much-maligned role players that had quietly buttressed the best stretch of AD’s career (our opinion; not his) only to fall short.
In L.A.’s 10 games before Tuesday’s loss, Austin Reaves averaged 13.4 points on 60.0 percent shooting from the field and 46.7 percent shooting from deep. Lonnie Walker IV was even more prolific, racking up 17.8 points on a 51.3/46.9/95.5 shooting split. Those two had largely answered questions about the team’s shooting and wing play.
Even Russell Westbrook had been helpful. Entering Tuesday night, his worst plus-minus figure across his last nine games was a minus-2, and the Lakers had been break-even or better in Russ’ minutes six times during that stretch. For context, Westbrook posted a positive plus-minus figure just twice in his first dozen contests.
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James was also stellar in support of Davis during the Lakers’ 8-2 run, averaging 28.2 points in the six games he played.
None of that got any attention with AD going full create-a-player, racking up five straight games of at least 25 points and 15 boards to kick things off, beating the Milwaukee Bucks on the road with a cool 44 points and 10 rebounds, pile-driving the Washington Wizards with 55 points on 22-of-30 shooting, stopping a runaway train filled with orphans on his off day and performing various other acts of valor.
That last thing probably didn’t happen, but one could argue that dragging the Lakers out of the rubble of their seemingly imploded season comes pretty close in terms of improbable heroism.
That’s why what happened against Cleveland matters so much. The Lakers got lots of similarly impressive work from guys way down the call sheet and still couldn’t compete.
Thomas Bryant hustled like he was fighting for a job and probably earned one, even if it may only be the modest position of unquestioned backup center ahead of Wenyen Gabriel. He totaled a season-high 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and was the only player bringing any semblance of interior presence against a Cavs team that amassed 70 paint points.
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Westbrook and Dennis Schroder both scored 16 points on matching 6-of-13 shooting nights, with the latter scoring a quick seven points after halftime to trim Cleveland’s lead from eight to one in just under two minutes.
James also did what he could when pressed into duty down low against Cleveland’s overwhelming length. Though he was visibly frustrated with teammates on occasion, he still managed 21 points and a season-high 17 rebounds in 36 minutes, bringing a level of competitive intensity you don’t typically expect from a 37-year-old who knows energy conservation is just a part of his reality now.
James dove to the floor more than once to collect a loose ball and save a possession, and his waning mobility didn’t keep him from battling inside.
Davis was sick, not injured. That’s the good news, especially for a player who had only missed two games prior to Tuesday night, putting the lie (so far) to criticism of his durability. The result in his absence should still have a significant impact on his team’s thinking.
Prior to the loss against Cleveland, it might have been reasonable for the Lakers’ front office to conclude the team’s recent success was about more than a superstar going on a three-week heater against mostly bad competition. The reserves and non-AD starters were making a real difference.
With this glaring example of how little the “other guys” matter when “the guy” isn’t involved, the L.A. brass may have to think even harder about pursuing one of the many trade paths that have been topics of discussion all season.
Reasonable minds can disagree about whether what Davis and the rest of the Lakers have done over the last dozen or so games is enough to rationalize those hypothetical future-mortgaging deals. Maybe such drastic measures are justifiable to maximize the chances of success for the AD-LeBron pairing in the short term. Maybe they’re not.
The only certainty is that, despite the Lakers getting vastly improved play from sources other than Davis, he is still the sole determinant of his team’s success. That makes the Lakers profoundly fragile.
Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. Fragility applies to things you’re concerned about breaking.
For a Lakers team many would have happily smashed into a thousand pieces not so long ago, the renewed belief that any of this is worth preserving must count for something.