Lakers’ Anthony Davis reaches out for a pass as Dallas Mavericks’ Dorian Finney-Smith defends in the first half in Dallas on Thursday. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
Anthony Davis walked off the floor. And even though his team was down, it was a monumental victory. Because Anthony Davis was able to walk off the floor.
Before Thursday, the last time Davis headed off an NBA court was in mid-February in Denver, the Lakers’ superstar big man walking with a limp, shaken up by what he had just felt.
One wrong step had Davis feeling a pain he’d never felt before, a ripping sensation bouncing up and down the back of his right leg. He knew it was bad. He could only hope that he’d be back.
Davis wasn’t sharp in his first game back after sitting out the last 30, making just two of 10 shots in part-time duty. But at least he was back — the Lakers perfectly comfortable with Davis easing himself back into action.
Still, it all made for some awkwardness — the Lakers having Davis for only the first half in a 115-110 loss Thursday in Dallas.
The Lakers would prefer to iron all of this out on the practice court, allowing for Davis to try and get his legs while figuring out how to best function alongside new-ish center Andre Drummond.
But the pandemic-compressed schedule has nearly made practices extinct, forcing the team to work on the fly.
“The biggest thing for Anthony is really the return to play happening the right way, you know what I mean?” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said pregame. “Ideally, we’d have two or three practices before he’s thrown into an NBA game. Well we don’t have that, so we’re gonna be super careful with his return to play.”
He made only two shots — a stepback jumper and a quick, spinning floater on the baseline out of the post. He shook his head side to side, frustrated with the rust that he was slowly shedding. He played 17 minutes, two more than planned, scoring four points to go with four rebounds, four assists, one steal and a blocked shot.
“It’s just tough when you haven’t played,” Davis said. “I felt good out there. Really good.”
But most importantly, he looked, as he’s put it, “100% healthy,” quickly popping off the court as he fought for loose balls or got tangled up with Dallas defenders.
The Lakers could’ve used Davis in the second half, but they’ve got eyes on more important targets down the road.
So they settled for fighting with the lineup they’ve relied on since LeBron James added to the Lakers’ troubles because of a high ankle sprain.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continued his rebound from a brutal midseason slump, hitting six of 12 from three on his way to 29 points. Dennis Schroder sublimely commanded the offense, scoring 25 while dishing out 13 assists, and Drummond was dominant against the Mavericks’ undersized frontcourt with 14 points and 19 rebounds.
But like so many games without Davis and James, the Lakers were undone by turnovers, committing 16.
It was a night with the Lakers sort of in it. They sort of had their star back. They sort of can feel encouraged because he came out of it injury-free. They sort of continued to show toughness and fight in the second half, and they sort of should feel disappointed with the loss.
Luka Doncic scored 30 points and all four other Mavericks starters had at least 10, but the Lakers couldn’t capitalize on Kristaps Porzingis being knocked out of the game because of an ankle injury.
And Dallas’ second unit outplayed the Lakers’ reserves in their head-to-head minutes.
The loss slightly closes the gap between the Lakers and Dallas, the Mavericks desperately trying to work their way out of the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference, which would put them into the playoff play-in tournament.
They can close the gap again on Saturday when the two teams meet again. But just like Thursday, Davis will be back on the court.
And right now, that’s what matters most.
Three observations on the Lakers
Anthony Davis’ return was rocky if you judged things by the box score, but most importantly, Davis looked healthy. He moved with freedom, took some contact and said he felt great being back on the court. Nothing mattered more than that.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s hot shooting continued, the Lakers guard hitting six of 12 from three to lead the Lakers with 29 points. It’s his third straight game with at least five made threes.
The Lakers are starting to acknowledge things like seeding and the play-in tournament for the first time this season, admitting that another loss to Dallas could be problematic as they try to keep from falling below sixth place in the West.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.