Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Lakers try to look forward despite absence of Anthony Davis

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EL SEGUNDO — Most of their week off was spent with family. Some were on distant beaches. Some stayed home. LeBron James, the Lakers’ lone All-Star, hadn’t yet returned from his own break (with team approval) in an effort to squeeze a little more rest and relaxation out of it.

But all the recharging in the world doesn’t change that the Lakers (27-31), sitting at ninth place in the Western Conference, won’t have Anthony Davis for at least the next month and maybe more. And even as the Lakers took some time off from an already trying season, they still started adjusting to the challenge that looms in the last 24 games.

After Thursday’s first practice back from All-Star break, Coach Frank Vogel acknowledged he had already been at work the day before trying to determine how the team would play in Davis’ second extended absence of the season. Russell Westbrook, who spent the weekend celebrating his mother’s birthday, said he has made a mental shift.

“For me, I already kind of (adjusted my) mentality, changed my mindset a little bit knowing kind of what to be expected,” he said. “Our job is to hold it down until he gets back.”

That job begins Friday against the Clippers, in a game that will immediately measure the Lakers’ ability to lift themselves out of mediocrity. Despite their own injury issues, their arena neighbors are one spot ahead of them in the standings with a game-and-a-half lead, as well as a 2-0 advantage in head-to-head games this season. In the last game against the Clippers, Davis was the Lakers’ best player with 30 points and 17 rebounds.

Vogel said the Lakers’ top objective is to avoid the play-in tournament by finishing in the top six in the conference. But with a six-game deficit to sixth-place Denver, catching the Nuggets appears to be a long shot. A more manageable goal, Vogel acknowledged, is to get into seventh or eighth place – those positions face a double-elimination play-in, while the ninth- and 10th-place teams face single-elimination and have to win twice to reach a best-of-seven first-round series against the top-seeded Western team.

In order to get there, the Lakers are going to have to do something they’ve struggled with all season: form a cohesive identity. Vogel said he studied the last time the Lakers played without Davis – a stretch in which they went 7-10 – for insights into what they did well and what they can do better, particularly with their smaller lineups.

“There were some real positives with how we played small and LeBron playing center,” he said. “Whether that becomes a full-time thing, it’s probably to be more of a hybrid of using that lineup in doses. But we definitely looked at that stretch of our season to evaluate who we’re going to be going forward.”

While the coaching staff has squeezed the minutes of veteran centers Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, Vogel said “we’re going to need them a lot more” in the coming weeks without Davis.

Another question the Lakers have to answer: Is James fully invested in finishing out the season on a high note?

After stirring up controversy over All-Star weekend by talking about the possibility of going back to Cleveland or joining another NBA team to be teammates with his teenage son, James’ absence from practice might have seemed awkward – and yet it was pre-planned before the break. Vogel and Westbrook both downplayed the idea that anything James had said over the weekend affected the team.

“I learned to let the noise be noise and focus on what’s in front of me,” Vogel said. “That’s winning the next game.”

With two games against the Clippers in the next week, the Lakers also face the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks – two teams that are also scrapping for positioning (though from opposing ends of the standings). It’s the precursor to a schedule that is the NBA’s third-hardest to close out the regular season.

Though he’s had perhaps more ups and downs than any of his teammates, Westbrook projected a stoicism about the rest of the season that the Lakers hope carries over into how they play.

“I feel super confident about our group, what we have and how we move forward,” he said. “Our job is to make sure we continue to play the right way, defensively, offensively, move the basketball around with pace and I think it’s gonna put ourselves in a position that favors us in the end of it.”

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