EL SEGUNDO — For a 2-6 team that’s been beset by injuries early, even the smallest measures of progress are welcome.
So it had to be at least a little encouraging Saturday afternoon that LeBron James and Anthony Davis were back in the gym.
Neither attended Friday morning shootaround before a loss to the Utah Jazz, with directives to stay off their feet. James has battled a stomach virus for most of the week, while Davis has been plagued by back issues that have already caused him to miss a game. But both might be getting back to full strength, which the Lakers badly need with their first back-to-back on deck.
Coach Darvin Ham said the plan is for the Lakers’ starting stars to play Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Monday in Utah. Davis echoed the sentiment.
“That’s the plan,” Davis said. “Hopefully nothing happens where I can’t. But that’s the plan.”
Davis’ mobility has been hampered by his back injury, which the Lakers haven’t publicly diagnosed but have also suggested is not at risk of getting worse. Davis has averaged 21.7 points over the past three games since sitting out against Minnesota on nearly 52% shooting while adding 2.3 blocks. Against the Jazz, he said, it felt “pretty good.”
James’ play of late, however, has slipped. In his past three games, he’s averaged 21 points on 21.3 shot attempts. He’s missed his past 13 field goal attempts from 3-point range. James said he’s mostly been on bed rest between games, trying to regain his strength.
“I lost my rhythm when I kinda got this bug,” he said Friday night. “Not only the threes, but a couple of layups have been short around the rim. Just feel like my rhythm has been off. Haven’t had an opportunity to get on the practice floor because I’ve been kinda told – not just told to stay away but advised to stay away to save my energy for the games.”
After giving up 130 points to Utah, however, Ham was not in the mood for excuses. Saturday’s film session was largely film pointers from missed defensive assignments against the Jazz. Ham pointed to the on-ball pressure as an issue: Especially in the fourth quarter, Utah point guard Mike Conley was able to cook them through play-making and some late scoring.
“I tell them no one man gets a stop,” Ham said. “It takes a unit, but to that point, having said that, individually we have to have individual pride and that competitiveness to keep the ball in front and to put pressure on the ball.”
That will be a point against the Cavaliers. Even if Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, who both missed Friday’s game, aren’t able to play, Cleveland still has Caris LeVert, a scrappy playmaker and scorer who has bothered the Lakers in the past.
The biggest problem, however, might be Cleveland’s size. Between Jarrett Allen and USC product Evan Mobley, the Cavs have a pair of big men who protect the paint. Cleveland is second (103.3) in defensive rating so far – Mobley recorded a whopping eight blocks Friday against the Pistons.
The Lakers, too have been fearsome on defense … up until Friday night. Davis said he hopes the team can get back to what Ham called “our bread and butter,” which could help them start edging closer to the team they believe they can be.
“We’re not the team that our record shows,” he said. “Any given night, our team can play very well and explode for a big night. But I know teams fear us, for sure. We just gotta continue to apply pressure.”