Never underestimate the heart of a champion. The Los Angeles Lakers took on the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday in what should have been a blowout. The Lakers, on the road against a team that has given them trouble for years, were without LeBron James, Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker. Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso were playing through pain. The Clippers blew them out only a night ago, and by rights, Portland probably should have done the same.
But the defending champions put up one heck of a fight. The game was tied deep in the fourth quarter and was it not for a few controversial calls and some bad bounces, the Lakers might have left Portland as victors. Alas, they fell, 106-101, and now, with only a week or so left in the regular season, the Lakers are staring the play-in round in the face.
A play-in bonanza
The Lakers and Blazers each have five games left on their schedule, and functionally, the Blazers lead the Lakers by two. Not only did they pick up a game in the standings on Friday, but they also earned the tiebreaker over the Lakers. The Mavericks have the tiebreaker as well, and they also have a two-game lead. In other words, barring something miraculous, the Lakers are going to be the No. 7 seed, and will therefore have to play in the play-in round.
On paper, that's not as disastrous as it sounds for the Lakers. They'd probably prefer to see the No. 2 seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round than risk a premature battle with the Clippers. The risk comes in who is currently seeded No. 8. It's a team that James is quite familiar with: the Golden State Warriors.
When the NBA conceived the play-in round before the season, they likely couldn't have imagined a more intoxicating matchup than this one. For years, LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry was the main attraction in the NBA Finals. This season? It's looking like we're going to get it before the playoffs even begin. The league would certainly prefer not to risk missing out on the Lakers in the postseason, but they could hardly ask for a more marketable matchup to sell the play-in concept than this one.
Davis had every reason to sit this game out. It was a back-to-back on the road only a night after he suffered back spasms against the Clippers. Without James, a win was unlikely anyway. The Lakers may have indeed lost the battle, but they won the war: for the first time since returning from the calf injury that sidelined him for two months, Anthony Davis looked like Anthony Davis again. He was the best player on the floor and it wasn't particularly close.
Davis scored 36 points, his second-highest scoring total of the season, pulled in 12 rebounds, his third-best performance on the glass, and dished out five assists, his fourth-best performance as a passer. His explosiveness as a defender looked to have mostly returned despite visible back pain. Frank Vogel even ran a good chunk of the offense through him, something the Lakers struggle to do even when Davis is at full strength. How many bigs are running pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler?
This doesn't work with a compromised Davis. Defenses have to believe that he can blow by them to give him space to shoot. Davis did just that in this game. He has functioned largely as a jump-shooter since returning from injury, attempting only 3.4 shots in the restricted area per game. He took and made six of them in this game while earning 15 free-throw attempts.
Seeding doesn't matter to the Lakers if they aren't at full strength. For a while there, it looked like Davis might not get back there in time for the playoffs. If he's anything like he was on Friday, though, that question has been answered. The Lakers have one of their superstars back and ready to dominate.
No free points
The splotch on Davis' otherwise brilliant performance? What happened once he got to the free-throw line. Davis missed five of his 15 attempts there. The Lakers lost by exactly five points. It would be nonsensical to attribute the loss directly to his shooting at the line, but this has been a disturbing trend for the Lakers all season.
Davis was the best free-throw shooter on the Lakers last season. He made 84.6 percent of his attempts and was above 80 percent for his career entering this season. Now he's down to a career-low 72 percent. Injuries probably aren't the culprit here. He was at 71.5 percent before he got hurt. Perhaps it's residual exhaustion after a shortened offseason. Davis' shooting numbers are down across the board.
For someone who draws as many fouls as Davis does, the difference between 84 percent and 72 percent is substantial. It's one point for every nine free throws or so. That's not going to change the outcome of most games, but statistically speaking, better free-throw shooting could have saved this one. Who's to say that won't happen again in the playoffs? Davis has less than two weeks to figure out whatever's going wrong at the line, because given the other issues this offense has, they simply can't afford to sacrifice points.