Without LeBron, hobbled Anthony Davis carries Lakers in Milwaukee: ‘He played his a– off’

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MILWAUKEE — Anthony Davis doesn’t remember how exactly it happened. He doesn’t think he banged knees with Khris Middleton. But at some point in the fourth quarter, his left knee started hurting.

As the Los Angeles Lakers rallied from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit at Fiserv Forum on Tuesday, Davis was visibly hobbled, lumbering up the floor and wincing in pain as Lakers associate athletic trainer Jon Ishop massaged and warmed Davis’ knee.

With LeBron James out of the lineup because of his ongoing ankle injury, and the Lakers facing a must-win game on the road, Davis gutted through the injury and helped deliver one of the Lakers’ best wins of the season: a 128-124 double-overtime victory over the Milwaukee Bucks to tip off their six-game road trip. The Western Conference’s No. 9 seed, the Lakers improved to 40-32 and are quietly within striking distance of the No. 8 Phoenix Suns (42-30), with the head-to-head tiebreaker in Los Angeles’ favor.

“With how the game was going, we could’ve easily moved on to tomorrow because all these games are must wins and we need him feeling as good as anybody going into these games,” Austin Reaves said. “But his mentality (is) to stick with it.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham continually checked in with Davis during timeouts and stoppages in play.

Are you good? Should I pull you out?

“He assured me he was gonna push through,” Ham said. “(The medical staff) said it was OK. Just tolerance — whatever he could tolerate. And kudos to him, man. He played his ass off.”

It was similar to how Davis powered through the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 123-122 win over the Bucks on March 8. After trying to take a charge against Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the third quarter, Davis suffered a stinger in his left shoulder and could barely move his arm for the game’s final 12 minutes. He functioned as a decoy offensively, allowing D’Angelo Russell to close out the game with his string of jumpers.

On Tuesday, Davis remained in the thick of the fray, scoring 16 points, draining a season-high three 3s, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots in 20 minutes. In all, Davis posted 34 points, 23 rebounds, two steals and four blocks in 51:52 minutes — the most minutes of Davis’ career and the most by a Lakers player since Kobe Bryant in 2012.

Davis’ greatest contribution was predictably a defensive play. As Damian Lillard curled around a screen on an out-of-bounds set with 3.1 seconds left in the first overtime, he got past Spencer Dinwiddie with two dribbles and launched a left-handed running layup. Davis, the backline defender, left Antetokounmpo and swatted Lillard’s shot to send the game to double overtime.

“Defensive instincts,” Davis said. “I saw he had a step … and I just read it.”

Ham, meanwhile, was more effusive in his praise of the sequence.

“He’s done it time and time again, man,” Ham said. “Even him going through some extreme pain. Still making him available for his team. He takes great pride in being the captain of our defense. … We’ve seen him do it against Steph (Curry). We’ve seen him do it against different guys. And tonight it was on full display.”

Davis had plenty of help offensively. Reaves posted his second career triple-double (29 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) and made the game-clinching 3-pointer with 38.6 seconds left. Russell rebounded from a subpar first half to score 29 points, grab seven rebounds and dish 12 assists. Rui Hachimura added 16 points and 14 rebounds.

But the Lakers look to Davis to deliver when James is out of the lineup. He struggled in the first half, making just 4 of 13 shots, and being outplayed by Antetokounmpo, who barreled through and scored on Davis several times.

But in line with the theme of the game, Davis saved his offensive burst for the second half — particularly late. Despite his rough start, Davis kept shooting. And, as the Bucks played off him and suffered several defensive breakdowns, he began to make them pay. Over the final 16 minutes, he hit those three 3-pointers — all in the fourth quarter and two overtimes — and set a season-high with eight 3-point attempts. He finished just 12-of-31 from the floor, an off night, but an aggressive one, nonetheless.

“I’m very confident in my game,” Davis said. “I know none of the shots that I took felt weird. They all felt good, I just missed them. So I just kept shooting.”

For years, Davis has been synonymous with injuries. He missed at least 26 games in each of the 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, earning the pejorative nickname “Street Clothes” by some in the national media.

But this season, Davis has been available for all but four games, playing through a variety of ankle, foot, knee and shoulder injuries. Only Reaves has appeared in more games. Davis has been the Lakers’ best player on most nights — arguably the first time that can be said in the James-Davis era — and their most consistent.

Davis’ name should be written in pen for All-NBA and All-Defense, and on many ballots for Defensive Player of the Year, though his season has largely gone underappreciated and under-discussed in national conversations. Reaves, who has been one of Davis’ most vocal supporters this season, often pointing out that Davis never has a bad game because of his defensive contributions, reiterated Davis’ importance to the Lakers.

“I don’t think there’s a good way to put it in words, just appreciation for what he did tonight,” Reaves said. “Any time he’s on the court, regardless if he’s making shots, blocking shots, rebounding, his presence is, in my opinion, his biggest strength, Any time he’s on the floor, offensively, you’ve got to account for him. Defensively, same thing, you get into the paint, and there’s nothing easy around there.

“So just appreciation to him gutting it out. Yeah, he’s an all-pro. Look at the numbers.”

The win moved the Lakers to 6-4 in games without James — the best record without him in Los Angeles and the first time a James team has had an above .500 record without him since the Miami Heat in 2012-13.

That, in large part, has been because Davis has stepped up. In the nine games with James out of the lineup — Davis missed the Boston game that James also missed — Davis is averaging 28.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks on 48.5 percent shooting. Davis is averaging 22.2 shot attempts — a sign of his aggression in addition to his lower shooting percentage — and has attempted at least 20 shots in eight of the nine games.

“Today, the team relied on me a lot, especially when Bron is out, and I tried to perform,” Davis said.

James is expected to return on Wednesday for the second night of the Lakers’ back-to-back in Memphis. He’ll be badly needed with the other core players exhausted and, in Davis’ case, nursing a new ailment.

“It was fun,” Davis said with a smile. “Let’s line up and do it all over again tomorrow.”

(Photo of Brook Lopez and Anthony Davis; Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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