Lakers' road to repeat looks much better with Anthony Davis back
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
After Anthony Davis made his first basket in 67 days, he shook his head in relief.
He had missed his first five shots, and it took him more than seven minutes to score against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, a stumbling start for the eight-time All-Star.
But that was to be expected after he missed 30 games because of a right calf strain and tendinosis, and he couldn't help but savor watching the ball splash through the net after shooting a step-back, 19-foot jumper with 4:51 left in the first quarter.
In a season filled with Stephen Curry's 50-footers, Joel Embiid's power in the paint and Nikola Jokic's dominance, Davis' rocky night might have been one of the highlights of an injury-scarred NBA season, considering the scare he had just more than two months earlier.
In a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 14, Davis grabbed at his right heel and limped off the court after planting his foot.
The fear was that he suffered one of the most dreaded injuries in the NBA, a torn Achilles tendon. It's an injury that sidelines players eight to 12 months and often leaves them a hobbled version of themselves when they return.
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Davis acknowledged that even he was afraid at the time. He said he never experienced pain like that in his life. He described feeling a "ripping" sensation in his Achilles tendon, the largest tendon in the body that's essential for walking, jumping and running.
The injury turned out to be less severe than feared, and his return represented a welcome development for the Lakers, who fell from the second seed to the fifth seed in his absence.
It's also great news for the league, which has been struggling with an onslaught of injuries to its players amid a condensed, 72-game season following a historically short offseason and would like the playoffs to feature as many top players as possible.
Soon the face of the NBA will be back, too. According to Davis, LeBron James (high right ankle sprain) is "a couple weeks or so" from returning.
As Davis shook off the rust of nine weeks, his stat line was an unimpressive four points on 2-for-10 shooting, four rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block and one turnover in 16 minutes and 40 seconds, all of which were played in the first half.
But there were some positive signs for the Lakers.
Most importantly, he felt good and played without fear.
"I didn't think about it one time tonight," Davis said. "Honestly, I just went out there and played. I think it can limit what you do if you're out there thinking about your injury."
Davis is certainly no stranger to injuries. He has missed at least seven games in each of his nine seasons in the league. In his two seasons in Los Angeles, he has had two moments that made the Lakers organization collectively hold its breath.
In addition to the injury Feb. 14, he suffered a scary fall in January 2020 after attempting to block a shot against the New York Knicks' Julius Randle and landing hard on his back. Davis remained on the floor for several minutes with his teammates huddled around him in front of a hushed Staples Center crowd.
Luckily, that injury too turned out to be way less serious than initially feared, with an MRI revealing that he had a bruised gluteus maximus.
But Davis clearly has a concern that something worse could happen, a completely rational thought for an NBA player who relies on his body to earn money while throwing it in harm's way night in and night out.
In December, Davis acknowledged that his injury history played a part in his wanting to sign a five-year, $190 million contract extension with the Lakers. He wanted some security.
Luckily for the Lakers, Davis says he's now 100 percent healthy.
His biggest issue after Thursday's game was frustration that he wasn't able to play in the second half because of a minutes restriction.
As such, he wanted to savor every moment on the court. And his teammates wanted that for him, too, encouraging him to shoot as much as possible before he was taken out of the game.
"Even when I missed shots, they were still there telling me, 'Good shots. Keep shooting. Keep going. You only got a certain amount of time, so shoot the ball,'" Davis said. "That was the reassuring part with those guys is knowing that they want me to just shoot the ball, score the ball, so that’s good when you have teammates like that."
Without Davis the past 30 games, the Lakers went 14-16. Having him back on the court was a welcome sight for a team that showed a lot of grit in his absence.
Things already feel different.
"Just even seeing him walk into the game, go out and warm up, get dressed with us, the energy was a little different, just knowing he’s back 100 percent," said Caldwell-Pope, who had 29 points Thursday. "We kind of needed that a little bit, that energy."
The Lakers are hoping to be at full strength come playoff time, and that's a great thing for the league — at least in theory.
With only 13 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers (35-24) aren't concerned about where they end up in the standings. They believe if they're healthy, no one can stop them.
"If everybody is there in a seven-game series, I'll put my money on us," said Dennis Schroder, who had 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting.
As for Davis, being injured had a few silver linings.
While he was sidelined, he said he grew as a leader, becoming a coach of sorts from the bench. He was also able to get a mental reset after having only 71 days off between winning a championship in October and starting a new season in December.
That said, he was counting down the seconds until he could return to the court.
On Thursday, he was finally back where he's meant to be.
Even though the game didn't go as planned, he enjoyed every minute of it.
"It was just fun to be out there again," he said. "A long time coming. So I was just excited to be out there."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.