When the Los Angeles Lakers lost both LeBron James and Anthony Davis to injuries, the general assumption around the NBA is that the defending champions would be a shell of themselves.
But that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
Davis played his first game on Thursday night since aggravating his sore right Achilles during a Feb. 14 loss to the Denver Nuggets. And James haven’t played since suffering a high right ankle sprain during a March 20 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Before Thursday’s 115-110 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center, the Lakers posted a 7-9 record since James and Davis have both been out of the lineup. And that includes impressive wins at Brooklyn, 126-101, on April 10 and a 127-115 victory in overtime against the Utah Jazz Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Mavs were 21-19 after James suffered his injury and have since posted a 11-7 record, so they’ve made up three-and-a-half games on the Lakers since James and Davis were both sidelined with injuries.
“We’ve had some good runs and we’ve had some down stretches and we’re trying to get back on an uptick,” Carlisle said. “And really we’re going day-to-day with this.
“Our guys are aware of the standings and aware of the positioning. But we’ve got to focus on playing our game to the best of our ability.”
The results of Thursday’s game brought the Mavs into a tie with Portland as both teams sport a 32-26 record in the dogfight for the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed. But the Trail Blazers own the tie-breaker by virtue of their 2-1 season series over the Mavs.
“We just trying to get into the playoffs,” said Luka Doncic, who had 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists against the Lakers. “We not trying to get into the play-in tournament.”
In order to stay out of the play-in tournament, the Mavs must finish at least in the sixth spot out West. What transpired on Thursday gives them a start to possibly jump ahead of the Blazers and maybe even the Lakers, who they play again on Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
“We had some pretty significant ups and downs in this game, some emotional things going on in NBA games to start with,” Carlisle said. “That’s just the nature of it.
“But I really am more inclined to point to the fact that when things do get volatile in games, we have shown resiliency and we have shown poise.”
In the meantime, Carlisle credits Lakers coach Frank Vogel for keeping the defending NBA champs tied together.
“They’ve done a great job, that’s what you’ve got to say,” coach Carlisle said. “Frank’s done a great job. This is a great opportunity for their supporting cast to step into roles of greater responsibility.
“I think everybody looked at it and said, ‘Well, there’s an opportunity here for somebody,’ but they’ve really been the story for how well they’ve played.”
The Lakers were especially solid at the defensive end of the floor before James and Davis were injured.
“He’s done a great job of putting those guys in their sweet spots (and) bringing defense as (the Lakers’) identity,” Carlisle said of Vogel. “That was the big calling card in Indiana.
“They were a top-level defensive team, and that hasn’t changed and that’s one of the reason they’ve been able to win so many games in the absence of two stars – that their defensive system is very, very solid.”
Indeed, that defensive system is where the Lakers hang their hats whether or not James and Davis are on the floor.
“We established a culture last year of being a defensive-minded group, and it doesn’t matter what five guys are on the floor, they’re going to execute at a high level on that side of the ball and it’s going to be a high care factor and a high level accountability,” Vogel said. “In particular, the biggest thing with this group is that we knew when (James and Davis) went down, we were going to have to win with defense without two elite scorers in there.
“They took a challenge upon themselves to compete and try to win games on the defensive end. And they’ve done a good job. It’s not always been perfect.”
Carlisle praises Vogel: Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said he’s been a “long-time admirer” of Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
“Particularly the fact that he started out in the video room,” Carlisle said. “He may have been working in Kentucky, then he was in the video room, I think, with Boston and worked his way behind the bench and may have gotten in front of the bench.
“And then he was in Indiana with (coach) Jim O’Brien, who’s a very underrated coach, and then he got a great opportunity there (to be the head coach). The evolution has been great to see because what we all learn in this profession is it’s a profession of adaptation and invention. You’ve got to always try to be on the inventive side, but you always got to adapt to the personnel that you inherit.”
And when it comes to inheriting, Vogel became the Lakers’ coach last season. And he has two of the game’s all-time greats in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which are the primary reasons the Lakers won the NBA title last year.
Briefly: Forward/center Maxi Kleber missed Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers with a lower back contusion. “He’s doing better today than expected,” Carlisle said. “There’s a possibility he could play on Saturday, so that’s good news.”. .Asked if there is an added buzz in the Mavs’ locker room since the Lakers are in town, Carlisle said: “I would have to say there is. And again, it’s just a feel. It’s a feeling. National TV games have a different feel to them to start with. And you bring the defending champs in and it’s going to add to that for sure.”