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Lakers stay afloat in West without LeBron James and Anthony Davis

L.A.'s role players and veterans filled in nicely to keep the Lakers from faltering too much in the West chase.

Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis are just about ready to return.

It’s one thing to be down two superstars, quite another to be down and out.

As we’ve seen from the Los Angeles Lakers over the last three weeks, the first was unavoidable, the second was undesirable. And so, with Anthony Davis set to return Thursday and LeBron James on deck, the defending champions are poised to make a comeback in a season where they didn’t exactly put themselves in position to be counted out.

They went 14-16 without Davis and 6-10 without Davis and LeBron. Although it’s a smaller sample size, that 14-16 mark (.467 win percentage) is a better winning percentage than the Washington Wizards all season with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook in the lineup (.421), better than the New Orleans Pelicans (.431) with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Did anyone see that coming?

The Lakers were in second place in the West, two games behind the Utah Jazz, before their stars went down. They’re now in fifth place, still occupying a guaranteed playoff spot as they wait the return of their saviors.

Considering the circumstances, the Lakers did well enough to keep from drifting into a dangerous place and maintained a decent enough position in the standings where Davis and LeBron won’t be required to burn many minutes and energy in the remaining three weeks trying to undo the damage. And really, that was the purpose all along: keep the ship afloat.

The Lakers are now poised to reclaim their status as the favorite to emerge from Western Conference — if not the favorite to repeat as NBA champs — even if they don’t get the No. 1 or 2 seed. They’ll have Davis and LeBron on the mend and well rested.

If AD and LeBron are healthy, the defending-champion Lakers loom as the West's team to beat.

In their absence, the Lakers managed to get by with defense, which was a non-negotiable tool with Frank Vogel ever since he became coach, along with a scattering of solid performances by role players thrust into big-boy minutes. In that sense, the Lakers learned something about themselves and how they could persevere in dire situations. And it doesn’t come more dire than missing those two stars.

The most vivid example of elevating one’s play is Talen Horton-Tucker, the 20-year-old guard coming off a season-high 24-point game in a loss to Utah on April 19. In February, he averaged 6.6 points in 19.3 minutes and in April, he’s at 14.3 ppg and 25.6 mpg. He’s led the Lakers in scoring three times without the two stars, and the Lakers saw a glimpse of this in the 2020 playoffs when he was a surprising addition to the rotation.

About the growth-by-fire this season, he said: “I feel like pretty much everybody is in my ear. Everybody is trying to tell me the right thing that they think that I should do and just tell me what they see. And I’m open to all input I get and I’m appreciative that they’re taking the time out to just help me because you don’t always get that.”

Veteran guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added: “He’s growing every day. The kid can score (and) he’s showing like a little bit like he can defend. He’s like a sponge and he’s really applying it to his game and we love him. Last year we threw him in the fire and he showed what he can do and he’s continued to grow since then.”

(From left) Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell have helped keep the Lakers afloat over the last few weeks.

Then there’s been the contributions from the usual suspects: Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma, each of whom took on additional minutes and roles and responsibilities. Center Andre Drummond, the newcomer, has struggled somewhat — which is understandable given the unfamiliar teammates and environment. But the Lakers are more interested in how he meshes with Davis, who is recovering from a calf strain and hates playing center.

The Lakers also had some good fortune along the way. Their schedule wasn’t terribly difficult and in their games against top opponents during this stretch, some of those teams were also missing their stars. In their biggest win of the season, the Lakers beat the Brooklyn Nets without James Harden and with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on limited minutes. They also beat Utah in overtime as it rested the injured Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley. In other games (like vs. the Hornets and Raptors), teams were without key rotational players.

When LeBron suffered a high ankle sprain March 20 against the Atlanta Hawks, that kicked off a four-game losing streak and, quite predictably, a sense of dread gained speed among observers. But that was the low point for the Lakers. They haven’t lost consecutive games since.

There’s no set timetable for LeBron’s return, although from a timing standpoint, nothing would be better than when the Lakers launch their toughest stretch of the season (May 3-9). That’s when they’ll see the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns. If LeBron is back for any or all those games, and the Lakers roll, it would send a chilling message to those contenders as the playoffs near (they start May 22).

With only 14 regular season games remaining, the Lakers can realistically go no higher than third in the West … and that’s if the red-hot Clippers collapse. Most likely, the Lakers are staring at the No. 4 or 5 spot and a first-round matchup with the Nuggets. That would be a rematch of the 2020 West finals, although the Nuggets are without Jamal Murray, who’s done for the season following knee surgery.

The Jazz, Lakers, Suns and Clippers all have the look of a squad that could go on a lengthy playoff run.

Assuming the current positions hold in the standings, the Lakers wouldn’t see the Clippers until the conference finals.

Vogel is strongly hinting that neither Davis or LeBron will get rationed minutes upon returning and may not see a full load until the playoffs.

“The biggest thing is conditioning right now,” Vogel said. “Having not played and not really being able to ramp up (Davis’) physical on-court activity over the last two months, it’s going to take some time before he gets his wind under him and obviously, that’s the biggest thing. Because if his legs aren’t under him, we don’t want him to be at risk for re-aggravation of the injury or another injury. We want to keep a close eye on that.”

That means the Lakers will still lean heavier than normal on the supporting cast.

“Even when Anthony returns, it’ll be in short, limited minutes,” Vogel said. “We’re still in a stretch where we’ve got to compete and win games for the most part without those (two) guys.”

When Davis becomes the first of the two stars to suit up, the Lakers will exhale, if only a bit. And this should happen very shortly.

Like, the next game on the schedule, according to Kuzma.

“His ass better play,” Kuzma said. “He’s been out (how many) months?”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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