Alexander: Could Lakers have repeated under normal circumstances?

Championship DNA, for whatever it’s worth, doesn’t guarantee good health.

The Lakers might have been able to boast the former, the outgrowth of last season’s championship run in the bubble. But the latter failed them throughout this mad scramble of a shortened, compressed NBA season. And yes, when it comes to writing the story of the Lakers’ 2020-21 season, and the bid to repeat that fell short, there is blame to be laid and it’s not all internal.

That story ended Thursday night with a 113-100 elimination game loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the first round, and it figured that the most important game of the season revolved around the injury report. Even then, good news turned out to be not so good after all.

After a couple of days of uncertainty, the Lakers received a blast of hope when Anthony Davis was deemed available to play before the game … only to have it doused when the All-Star big man limped off for good less than 5½ minutes into the game, his strained left groin making it impossible to continue after he’d visibly labored whenever he tried to run or jump.

The moment of truth came when Davis pursued the Suns’ Devin Booker on a drive to the basket, jumped … and came down awkwardly and agonizingly. Davis bent over in obvious pain, then limped to the sideline and plopped to the floor, head bowed in disappointment. Moments later he went to the locker room for treatment, and by halftime, the obvious had become official: He would not be returning.

Davis, of course, had provided the first clue that this Lakers season was going to be a grind when he limped off the court on Valentine’s Day night in Denver with the calf strain felt throughout Southern California. Davis missed 30 consecutive games with that injury and 36 all told in the regular season, hyperextended his left knee in Game 3 of the Suns series, then suffered the Grade 1 strain of his left groin in Game 4 on Sunday while trying to play through the knee issue. And yes, the knee injury led to the groin injury.

That in itself was a microcosm of what turned out to be a brutal end of the season, with Davis and LeBron James missing extensive time and a team that started out 21-6 and was seemingly in a great position to repeat suddenly having to battle for its playoff life.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Lakers and Miami, the last teams standing in the Orlando bubble last October, were also among the first ones gone this spring. With a short offseason followed by a 72-game schedule crammed into 146 days, with few off days, little time for real practices and an array of continuing COVID-19 protocols and restrictions … well, what did you expect?

“From the moment we entered the bubble to now, today, it’s been draining,” said James, a 36-year-old four-time league MVP. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.”

The short offseason disrupted players’ routines, Davis noted, and “all around the league, guys didn’t handle that very well. … You usually take about a month or so off and you still have six weeks weight room training, and then you have another month, month and a half for on-court (work). We didn’t get that.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that “none of our guys were prepared for training camp, and we tried to grind through it and get our legs under us,” another reminder that there’s a good reason why, under normal circumstances, players are expected to be in condition when camp begins.

The first-round series with the Suns finished with the No. 2 seed doing what it should do to a No. 7 seed. At 51-21 in the regular season, Phoenix was only one game behind Utah for the league’s best record, and the Suns might be capable of going the distance assuming future Hall of Famer Chris Paul gets his health back.

But Vogel had every right to wonder what if.

“This is a matchup, if we’re whole, that should probably take place in the conference finals,” he said. “But obviously the regular season was what it was with the injuries, and we slipped. I would like to see what our group could have done against this team if we were at full strength. But we weren’t. That’s sports. You gotta do the best you can and make the best of it.”

Not even James, with his personal streak of winning elimination games and his record of never having been knocked out in the first round in 14 previous tries, could save the day here. Then again, what was once a 29-point Phoenix lead in the first half was whittled to 10 late in the third quarter, thanks to a rally by a small lineup featuring LeBron at center.

“I was talking to Wes (Wesley Matthews) in the locker room just a few minutes ago, and I said the one thing that bothers me more than anything was we never really got an opportunity to see our team at full strength, either because of injury, or COVID, or something going on with our ballclub this year,” James said. “We could never fully get into a rhythm and never really kind of see the full potential of what we were capable of.”

That said, the Lakers’ early exit also means a full summer of rest, recovery and preparation. James seemed to indicate he’d skip the Olympics (while throwing in a sly plug for the “Space Jam” sequel coming out this summer).

Point guard Dennis Schröder put it another way, more colorfully than can be fully quoted in this publication, but the gist of it was: “You’ve got to get through the (garbage) to get to the good (stuff).”

If that’s true, wait until next year.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Lakers’ change at center does little to help in season-ending loss to Suns

LOS ANGELES — The old adage in football is if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none. The same could be said for the Lakers’ starting center situation in their first-round playoff exit to the Phoenix Suns.

Prior to Thursday night’s Game 6, Coach Frank Vogel decided to make a change to his starting lineup, inserting veteran Marc Gasol and moving Andre Drummond to the bench in an effort to shake things up after a disastrous Game 5 loss two nights earlier in Phoenix. But it made little difference in a 113-100 season-ending defeat for the Lakers.

Gasol shared the team lead with seven assists, but he did not score and had just three rebounds in 18 minutes. Drummond never saw the court, and when the Lakers made their push to try to stave off elimination, LeBron James was the team’s de facto center.

Game 6 was Gasol’s first start since April 15 and his fifth since the Lakers signed Drummond on March 28 after the Cleveland Cavaliers bought him out of his contract. Gasol signed with the Lakers during the offseason with the idea of being the team’s starting center, but he was relegated to a reserve role through the stretch run of the season. He did not play at Vogel’s discretion nine times in that span, including Game 1 of the series against Phoenix.

But after starting the second half of Game 5 in place of Drummond, Gasol was given his chance from the opening tip in the finale. He had a quiet first quarter, with one rebound and one assist in seven minutes.

When Gasol went to the bench in the first quarter, it wasn’t Drummond who took his spot on the court. Instead, Vogel opted for the more athletic Montrezl Harrell, who had one put-back dunk but otherwise didn’t contribute much in his eight minutes on the court.

Drummond was the lone Laker active for the game to not play on Thursday. On Wednesday, he sent out a tweet foreshadowing his move to the bench, saying “Lol. Remember kids, ‘Control what you can control and let the rest take care of itself.’”

During Game 6, Drummond mostly stood on the sidelines, his arms behind his back as he talked with teammates. After the halftime buzzer, he walked on the court to give Gasol a high-five before the two headed to the locker room.

Gasol started the second half with two quick assists, finding Wes Mathews cutting to the basket for a layup and then lobbing a pass to James for another. But he soon picked up his fourth foul, and Vogel opted to go small, not reinserting Gasol until there were just 30.6 seconds left in the game.

With All-Star forward Anthony Davis out after aggravating his injured left groin, James moved to center while Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma lined up in the post beside him.

“We just had to find a way to shut (Devin) Booker’s water off,” Vogel said of the small lineup. “We were able to generate some defensive stops, get us out on the break. And then there’s offensive spacing benefit to that lineup as well.”

The unit worked to a point, with the Lakers whittling down what had been a 29-point margin to 10. But it wasn’t enough to dig the team all the way out of the early hole.

How the Lakers address the center situation will be one of the big questions facing the team entering the offseason. Gasol has one season left on his contract. Harrell has a player option for 2021-22, while Drummond is set to be a free agent.

“We can switch it up,” Davis said when asked what his preferred frontcourt teammate looks like. “We had two bigs last year, JaVale (McGee) and Dwight (Howard). This year we had a stretch big and a big who plays in the paint. I can play either/or. I think my ideal big is whatever works, whatever fits our team. That’s ideal for me.”

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Alexander: Lakers successfully navigate play-in weirdness

The Lakers started out Wednesday night’s play-in game as if they really didn’t want to be there. They ended it looking like a team that didn’t want to come back Friday.

“Hesitant” was the term All-Star big man Anthony Davis used to describe his team’s play in the first half of the play-in game against the Golden State Warriors, a half in which he, fellow All-Star LeBron James and starting point guard Dennis Schröder went a combined 4 for 28 from the field and a sluggish Lakers team trailed by 13 points.

Maybe it was just a matter of adjusting to the weirdness of a game that was urgent but not quite a Game 7, more like a Game 6. Maybe it was a matter of reminding themselves that they are, after all, still the defending champions, and the only thing worse than the indignity of playing in this round would be the indignity of having to play that second play-in game, the one in which the loser really does go home.

So they avoided it. LeBron James’ cold-blooded, 34-foot 3-pointer with 58.2 seconds left, moments after he’d been raked in the face by Draymond Green and poked in the eye, punctuated a 103-100 victory that enabled the Lakers to skip Friday, secure the No. 7 seed and proceed directly to a best-of-seven first-round series against the second-seeded Suns that begins Sunday afternoon in Phoenix.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been unexpected. The Lakers have been sorting through potential rotations and trying to get James and Davis back into the mix after both missed extended stretches of the season with injuries, and the Warriors have been playing with urgency for a while. Others in the league might have used the final game of the regular season to, um, rest their stars, but the Dubs and the Memphis Grizzlies squared off Sunday for play-in seeding, trying to avoid the 9-vs.-10 matchup. They’ll meet again Friday night in San Francisco, and this time it truly will be an elimination game.

The Lakers wish them well, I’m sure.

It is a different animal, not quite a playoff game, not quite an elimination game, but one that could push you to the brink of summer vacation. Given (a) the unexpected bonus of a matchup between future Hall of Famers LeBron and Steph Curry and (b) the quality of the game that ultimately resulted, it seems a good bet that the NBA’s play-in round is here to stay. In time, its participants will figure out how to deal with it.

“I think from my perspective, it looked like we were almost just trying to play too perfect, instead of just going out there and kind of letting it hang and taking the results, whatever they were,” guard Alex Caruso said. “I think we were just trying to execute too much.

“And, you know, the Warriors’ last game was essentially their first play-in game, right? (They) already had dipped their toes in the water last game and they came out, knew their game plan, and were locked in.”

The visitors sensed it, too. ESPN’s courtside microphone picked up Golden State coach Steve Kerr telling his team during a first-half timeout, as he gestured toward the Lakers’ bench: “They got a lot of doubt down there. We got a lot of belief.”

A far more energized Lakers team emerged after halftime, and it turns out it wasn’t the coaches who lit a fire under them.

“You know, Duds (Jared Dudley) and Smooth (Markieff Morris) pretty much got on our (rears) at halftime,” James said. “They got on us and showed us that, you know, we gotta pick it up. … They brought the fight to our building, and we got to bring it right back. Guys like that, they speak, you listen. We took it to heart, didn’t take it personal. We just took it with us, and we improved our effort in the second half.”

Some of that might have been a reminder that they are, indeed, still the champs until somebody knocks them off. It has been a weird season throughout the NBA and particularly weird for the Lakers, who seemed eminently capable of rolling to a successful title defense until Davis and James were hurt.

The history is still daunting. No seventh seed has ever won the title. The closest thing, as we’ve noted, was No. 6 seed Houston in 1995, which had to regroup late in the season after trading for Clyde Drexler and wound up with Coach Rudy Tomjanovich reminding people, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” (As Tomjanovich mentioned at his Hall of Fame speech last week, Charles Barkley had compared those Rockets to a bunch of cockroaches that just wouldn’t die. Somehow, that wouldn’t have been nearly as poetic.)

Another apt comparison – and Laker fans of a certain age will hate this – would be the 1969 Boston Celtics. That team, with 34-year-old Bill Russell as player-coach and a bunch of other thirty-somethings in prominent roles, was 48-34, nabbed the last playoff spot in the East and seemed to be running on fumes as the playoffs began. But they won the whole thing, including a Game 7 in the Forum when the balloons then-Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had waiting in the rafters in anticipation of a championship wound up deflating on their own.

When you have the mindset of a champion, as those teams did and as these Lakers do, you’re expected to figure it out.

“This is a hell of a team, right?” Davis said.

“We had to remind ourselves at halftime, we’ve been here before. Let’s go and play our style of basketball. And we were able to do that in the second half. So we have to find that swag again, knowing that we’re defending champs and nothing’s gonna be easy for us because we do have a target on our back. Every team wants to beat us. So we got to know that.

“And, you know, we’ve got to come out a lot better against Phoenix.”

All that talk that the play-in round would give the Lakers an extra chance or two to figure it out? Maybe it wasn’t just rationalization. Maybe this really was the palate cleanser they needed.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

ALL-ANGLES of @KingJames‘ LONG DISTANCE GAME-WINNER! 🔥🤯@Lakers will be the West #7 seed in the #NBAPlayoffs and face #2 PHX in the First Round (Game 1 Sunday, 3:30pm/et on ABC) pic.twitter.com/CpEtashUc2

— NBA (@NBA) May 20, 2021

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Lakers’ Anthony Davis scorches Suns for season-high 42 points

  • Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns is defended by Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns shoots against Wesley Matthews #9 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns passes the ball under pressure from Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Alex Caruso #4 of the Los Angeles Lakers is fouled by Frank Kaminsky #8 of the Phoenix Suns as he goes up for a basket during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers puts his sneakers back on during action against Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots and scores a basket over Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James looks up a the scoreboard during the first half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) reacts after scoring next to teammates Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left, Wesley Matthews (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell (15) reacts after being fouled during the first half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, shoots over Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) and guard Wesley Matthews (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Marc Gasol, top right, blocks a pass from Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, reaches for a rebound over Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Andre Drummond (2) grabs a rebound against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel, center, argues a call during the first half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Son unday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, right, is defended by Los Angeles Lakers guard Wesley Matthews (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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There was only one moment Sunday night when Anthony Davis was stopped so decisively that the Lakers were forced to call a timeout.

It came at the 8:14 mark of the second quarter, when Davis was caught on the sideline holding one of his shoes in his hand. It was the only instance that the Phoenix Suns weren’t absolutely steamrolled by the 28-year-old star looking every shade of his most formidable self.

” I’m feeling better each game, getting my wind back each game,” said Davis with a breezy grin, “so we’re heading in the right direction.”

If the Lakers (38-30) and the No. 2-ranked Suns are destined for a first-round playoff matchup, Sunday’s 123-110 victory was a warning shot: Even without LeBron James, Dennis Schröder and Kyle Kuzma, even Davis backed by a focused and furious defense can do a lot of damage on their own.

It was difficult to take one’s eyes off of Davis, who scored a season-best 42 points, and harder still to guard him. The fluid forward channeled an aggression reminiscent of last season’s championship run, posting up inside, hitting feathery turnaround jumpers and hooks. Even at the line he was a near-lock, shooting 15 for 17 on his free throws (he sank his first 10).

Davis acknowledged that even earlier this season, he hadn’t had this particular dial turned all the way up.

“I think my mindset has changed, too, being in attack mode,” he said. “Earlier I was trying to look at the bigger picture and trying to get guys involved and letting them get accustomed to our system and so my mindset of attack mode, attack mode, attack mode was off a little bit.”

The Lakers did have to hold on at the finish, as the Suns brought the 22-point deficit at the third-quarter break to seven points with four minutes remaining. But there, Davis shone in a different way by controlling the glass (five rebounds in the final four minutes), memorably sliding across the floor for an offensive rebound with a minute-and-a-half left.

One of the last meaningful sequences showcased the breadth of Davis’ talent: He blocked Jae Crowder at the 3-point line, then slammed home an alley-oop on a reverse jam. After the game-clinching play, he flexed his arms and crowed — fully flushed of the tentativeness that characterized his early games back from a right calf injury.

Davis also finished with 12 rebounds, three steals and three blocks.

“He sets a tone for us with his assertiveness,” coach Frank Vogel said. “When he comes to play the last two games like he did the last two games looking to dominate, then everybody else gets a little bit more air in their chest and get more confidence in what we’re going to be able to do that night.”

The Suns (48-20) have had a wonderful regular season that has brought them back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, thanks to the ascendant stardom of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, the steady hand of Chris Paul and the coaching of Monty Williams. But the Lakers, who could face the two-seed by virtue of winning their first play-in game, showed their potential as a returning champion cast as an underdog — the ability to totally wipe their postseason hopes off the board.

Guarding Davis will be a huge part of any potential series, and the Suns scrolled through their rolodex: Ayton, Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric, Torrey Craig, smalls and double- and triple-teams. No convincing answer emerged.

Ayton (6 points) looked overwhelmed on both ends, while Booker and Paul (a combined 11 for 27 shooting) struggled to find an offensive rhythm. Williams later said the Suns didn’t respond aggressively enough to the challenge the Lakers posed.

“We have to understand that teams are sending a message at this time of the year,” he said. “We’ve played playoff teams, played a team we might see in the first round and I felt like they were sending us a message tonight.”

The Lakers, on the other hand, were able to tinker away: They got good results from their shooters in wing-heavy rotations, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points) and Ben McLemore (12 points) each took turns getting hot, while little-used Wesley Matthews looked solid in critical shifts. The separation was evident early, as the Lakers took a 13-4 lead before the first timeout.

Working with Alex Caruso and a returned Talen Horton-Tucker as primary ball-handlers, the Lakers showcased a clear command of what their offense looks like without James and Schröder, who have typically been the floor generals this season. They finished with 24 assists on 39 baskets, shooting 13 for 30 from 3-point range.

Caruso especially stood out as the team’s top remaining point, driving aggressively to the basket and finishing with 17 points. He had a defining defensive play as well, erasing a lob to 6-foot-11 Ayton from Paul in the final three minutes.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that he has to be considered for All-Defensive team with the way he guards, the way he does everything on that side of the ball,” Vogel said. “So to see him dominate on the defensive end and take control of our offense, to play on both sides, just proves his value to us.”

Coach Frank Vogel also experimented with a pairing that he took a long time to actually implement: playing Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell together. Gasol struggled with fouling on the evening, but Harrell (who did not play against Portland) had a bit of a bounce-back with 12 points off the bench.

There’s a long uphill climb now, which the Lakers hope includes a chase for a sixth seed that at the moment is out of their hands. But they won’t sweat it either if they do have to go the play-in route, which would mean trying to become the first seven seed ever to win the NBA title.

“We’ve had injuries, we’ve had COVID sit-outs, we’ve had the short offseason,” Caruso said. “We’ve been given every excuse, or every opportunity to take an excuse, and champions don’t make excuses. Champions find a way to get it done.”d

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Whicker: Lakers play just well enough against Blazers to feel the pain

The mailbox was yawning and the stamps were plentiful, but the Lakers turned down the opportunity Friday night.

Had they known what was going to happen to their legs, knees, bodies and souls in Portland, they might have taken the easier option.

They played very hard and, for a long time, very efficiently. They got MVP stuff from Anthony Davis. They still lost, 106-101, because of short-handedness and exhaustion and some ill fortune and a couple of bad decisions, and all their frenzy still led them down into the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference standings.

If they stay there, or sink from there, they must play at least one play-in game while the top six teams rest.

Escaping play-in purgatory might be difficult. The Lakers’ next two opponents are the Suns and the Knicks. They lost the season tiebreaker to Portland on Friday night. A victory would have been a massive B-12 shot to their chances and their outlook. After a tough start, they initiated play.

“The odds are stacked against us,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “I’m proud of how we competed.”

Davis nearly pulled off a special delivery. He exited Thursday night’s loss to the Clippers with a turned ankle and back spasms, but here he scored 36 with 12 rebounds and went to the free-throw line 15 times.

“A.D. looked like himself,” said Alex Caruso, who is suddenly at the top of the Lakers’ point guard depth chart. He showed up, too, with 34 minutes, a season-high 18 points and only one turnover.

In fact, the Lakers did not suffer a turnover in the second or third periods. But they couldn’t survive a 2-for-11 night from Kyle Kuzma, or various bumps in the fourth-quarter night.

Kuzma, and the rest of the Lakers, thought he should have been 3 for 12. He tipped in a shot and got whistled for offensive goaltending. That would have brought the Lakers to within 94-92 with four minutes left. Instead, Damien Lillard drilled a faraway 3-pointer, and so did C.J. McCollum after two Laker turnovers.

But then Davis pounded away for seven consecutive points and it was a 3-point game again. Kuzma pulled up for a transition 3-point attempt and missed it – “I thought he could have gone in for two, and then it’s a one-point game,” Davis said – and Ben McLemore fouled McCollum with 27 seconds left and with nearly 17 seconds left on the shot clock. A defensive stop gives the Lakers the ball with at least 10 seconds remaining, only down by three.

“There’s a lot going on there, things are moving fast,” Davis said. That’s why you hear the great players being praised for “slowing the game down.”

Through it all, Montrezl Harrell never got off the bench, with Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond handling the middle because of Portland’s size inside. Nothing impeded the Blazers from dashing for 42 points in the paint, and Drummond was ineffectual again, still a stranger with little time to sit down with his new classmates.

An ideal blueprint, for the Lakers, would be James’ return for at least the final two games, which are at Indiana and New Orleans next Saturday and Sunday. And there’s always the theory that the Lakers would actually profit from the play-in, merely because they need the work. That theory depends on how you feel about playing Steph Curry and Golden State in a knockout situation.

“We’re confident we’ll be in some sort of playoffs, whatever it is,” Caruso said.

Right now the Lakers are at No. 7, Golden State at 8, Memphis at 9 and San Antonio at 10. It begins with a 7-8 game, in which the winner earns the 7 seed and advances to a normal, best-of-seven first-round series. There’s also a 9-10 game, and the loser of that one packs it up for the season.

Then the 7-8 loser plays the 9-10 winner. The survivor takes the 8 seed.

Again, nobody in or out of basketball doubts that the Lakers can beat anyone, regardless of venue or standing, if they have a full choir. That seems less likely with each silent day from James. At least the Lakers, and Davis, played as if they weren’t waiting for anyone or anything, and there’s something to be said for that. The mail, as you know, takes too long to bother with.

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Lakers’ Anthony Davis expects to play against Blazers in crucial game Friday

LOS ANGELES — There was a moment when Anthony Davis took a last-second attempt at the shot clock buzzer, and tripped up over the Clippers’ scorers table as he backed into the sideline.

He spent a few tense seconds grabbing his right ankle, then retying his shoe. That one looked worse than it actually was, Davis said later.

What the crowd couldn’t see was his back, tensing up during the first timeout, then the second, as the Lakers’ deficit grew in Thursday’s game against the Clippers at Staples Center. And by the time he checked out around the 3-minute mark, Davis said, he felt tight enough that he couldn’t play on: “It got to the point where it was pretty tough.”

If Davis’ back was a tough obstacle, his absence was an insurmountable one for the short-handed Lakers, who were already skating on thin ice against the Clippers with him, but without him had to discard a good amount of their pre-game plans. Center Marc Gasol subbed in midway through the second quarter and was immediately pressured, as the Clippers forced two steals on their way to building a 20-plus-point lead.

But Davis said he doesn’t foresee the back spasms he suffered Thursday costing him a start on Friday night in Portland, where a critical tiebreaker with the Trail Blazers hangs in the balance. The Lakers already know they will be without LeBron James, Dennis Schröder and Talen Horton-Tucker for what Davis called “probably the biggest game” so far this season.

“I should be good to go tomorrow, based on how it’s feeling now,” said Davis, an eight-time All-Star. “But I’m gonna still wake up and test it out. But my plan is to still go tomorrow.”

Perhaps because of his stiffness, Davis’ game was not shaping up to be a good one: He was just 2 for 9 with four points in his 9-minute shift. That performance comes on the heels of perhaps Davis’ best game since his return from a nine-week injury absence – a 25-point effort against Denver, which included the game-clinching blocked shot.

For a Lakers team without its best playmakers against Portland, the question is even more pressing than usual: Which Davis will they get?

Coach Frank Vogel said he’s following the lead of the medical team in this case.

“We’re already trying to be responsible with his minutes,” he said. “Obviously, we’ll have to see how it feels tomorrow. It’s tough not having him in there, but obviously, you have to make the best decision for health.”

If the Lakers (37-29) – already one game behind fifth-place Dallas, which owns a tiebreaker over them – lose to the Blazers (37-29), it won’t bode well for their hopes to avoid the play-in tournament which begins on May 18, just two days after their final regular-season game. The seventh and eighth seeds must lose twice to be eliminated (playing each other, with the loser of that game facing the winner of the 9-10 game). As banged-up as the Lakers are, they don’t need more games tacked on to the regular season.

But Davis, who has spoken about avoiding the play-in games recently, acknowledged that the Lakers have a level of acceptance if it doesn’t swing their way.

“We don’t look at it as something bad,” he said. “To be honest, we need a lot of games, we need games to get back accustomed to each other, anyway. So, I mean, if it happens that way, it happens that way. Obviously, we don’t want to go that route. But if it happens, it happens.”

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Whicker: Lakers play with the effort the rest of season will demand

At last, they played as if they recognized the gravity of the situation.

And, at least, they stopped falling.

The Lakers, in fact, reached up and regained sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference standings on Monday night. If you’re wondering why that is so strut-worthy, you haven’t been around lately.

The purple-and-gold welcome mat that was defenseless against Sacramento and Toronto came to life and played like wounded underdogs Monday night, which is not their accustomed stance but fit quite well.

They beat the Denver Nuggets, who had won nine of 10, by a 93-89 score and distanced themselves, however temporarily, from the pre-playoff play-in tournament.

“It was just the heart, the togetherness,” said Wesley Matthews who, with Marc Gasol, escaped purgatory and served the Lakers well in the second half. “We put our feet in the ground, put them in the sand, whatever that saying is.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for the Lakers. We have to build on what we did. You have to play with a sense of desperation. When you do that, the ball finds energy. That’s how we played tonight.”

Stripped of options without LeBron James and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers put Monday’s game into the mitts of Anthony Davis, who had missed 11 of 16 shots in Sunday’s eyesore loss to the Raptors. They placed him on the left side of the line and made Nikola Jokic and, later, JaVale McGee play honest defense, and Davis finally looked commanding, with 16 first-half points. He wound up with 25, but his biggest play was an improbable, Beamon-esque lunge that managed to deflect a 3-point shot by Facuno Campazzo at the end.

Frazzled for most of the game, Denver uncorked a 14-2 run in the fourth quarter and actually could have gotten to within one point on Michael Porter Jr.’s 3-pointer. It was disallowed because Campazzo was whistled, oddly, for an illegal pick on Davis.

Luck also visited the Lakers, for the first time in a while, when Jalen Horton-Tucker drove into the lane, ahead by two. He offered an off-balance reverse layup that was kept alive by Gasol, who was being blocked out by Jokic. Horton-Tucker then grabbed it and scored for a four-point lead with 15.1 seconds left, and rolled his eyes in gratitude.

“I’ve got to thank God for the way that worked out,” Horton-Tucker said.

Gasol played 17 minutes with 10 points and seven rebounds and a lovely, two-handed outlet pass that Matthews handled and converted like a wide receiver. Matthews hit all three of his shots, including a 3-pointer from Gasol’s pass. They’ve faded deep into the Lakers’ woodwork lately, but on Monday they played like veterans do in playoff situations. Gasol now terms himself “Mr. Wolf,” the fixer played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction”, a guy who cleans everything up.

“It seems like we’ve played almost 1,000 different styles this year with guys being out,” Matthews said. “Basketball is like life. It’s unpredictable. You go on with it or it’ll go on without you. We have to get back to scrapping and clawing.”

On Sunday, James had said the biggest issue for the Lakers was “health.” He still is a proponent of the Messiah theory, that he and Davis will bring fresh, if scarred, legs into the playoffs and heal the Lakers with magic hands.

Betonline.com decreed that the Lakers were 7-2 choices to win the NBA title. Those are the shortest odds in the West, and they were posted before it was learned that Schröder will be out for 10 to 14 days.

James’ cryptic estimate that “I’m never going to be 100 percent” was difficult to un-hear, considering that he was back on the court 20 games after his high ankle sprain. He was adequate but not royal against Sacramento and Toronto, and then he left halfway through the fourth quarter Sunday, not to play again until Thursday against the Clippers, if then.

James also made it clear he opposed the play-in tournament for teams that finish 7 through 10 in each conference, saying its inventor “should be fired.”

That’s not a nice thing to say about Commissioner Adam Silver, and it also contradicts the way James viewed the play-in from afar, before it threatened to include him.

In a nutshell, No. 7 plays No. 8 and the winner gets into the playoffs as the 7-seed. The loser plays the winner of a knockout game between No. 9 and No. 10. The survivor of that also gets into the playoffs as the 8-seed.

It’s not an exercise fit for a King. But if a team with James and Davis can’t win one of two games against the likes of Memphis, San Antonio and Golden State, maybe a few others should be fired.

Speaking of “others,” the accompanying Lakers have left the door yawning. The injuries were the cue for Kyle Kuzma to play All-Star basketball. He largely has not. Andre Drummond hasn’t had time to get fully assimilated. He will get that time if the Lakers avoid the play-in and gain valuable practice time.

The Messiah theory is also hard to accept for those who have watched the West lately. In Phoenix, Chris Paul looks more like an MVP with each victory, and Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are responding accordingly. In Utah, things have been rockier with Donovan Mitchell hurt, but he will return for the playoffs, and so will Bojan Bogdanovic, who wasn’t around last season when the Jazz took a 3-1 series lead over Denver and then lost.

Then there’s Denver, which might have the toughest chin in the league. Jamal Murray went down with an ACL and the Nuggets won nine of their next 10, with Michael Porter Jr. averaging 25.4 points. If that continues, Jokic can start practicing his multi-lingual MVP speeches.

“We’ve had a lot of guys contribute,” said Michael Malone, the Denver coach, “but this is just an endorsement of Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy. He has put us on his back.”

Note to James and Davis, in case they’re tempted: That’s just an expression.

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Lakers lose for the sixth time in seventh game as LeBron James exits early

  • Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie, left, shoots as Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers scores a basket against Stanley Johnson #5 of the Toronto Raptors during the first half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Yuta Watanabe #18 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball against Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • DeAndre’ Bembry #95 of the Toronto Raptors scores a basket against Alex Caruso #4 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers is pressured by Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors during the second half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Yuta Watanabe #18 of the Toronto Raptors talks with former Raptors center Marc Gasol #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers before the start of an NBA game at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors shoots and scores a three-point basket, and is fouled by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Freddie Gillespie #55 of the Toronto Raptors goes up for a shot against Montrezl Harrell #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center on May 2, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell, left, blocks the shot of Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, top, and Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie go after a loose ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, shoots as Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell, left, blocks the shot of Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell, left, and Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie go after a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, right, shoots as Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam shoots during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie, left, grabs a rebound away from Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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Given a few seconds and the ball, Kyle Lowry is never one to waste an opportunity.

The thick-set point guard dashed down the floor as halftime approached, dusting Alex Caruso and sidestepping LeBron James for a layup in less than six seconds to put his team up by 13 at the buzzer.

It was that kind of urgency that the Lakers saw often on Sunday night from the Toronto Raptors, but never managed to summon themselves until it was far too late. Their own opportunity to shore up their sinking spot in the standings was wasted ahead of a decisive stretch of games.

In the closest thing to a must-win the defending champions have played so far, the Lakers (36-28) did not live up to the moment in a 121-114 defeat to the shorthanded Raptors (27-38), the team’s sixth loss in seven games. And perhaps most disheartening of all was the scene midway through the fourth quarter, as LeBron James went to the locker room with soreness in his injured right ankle and did not return.

“This is the lowest we’ve been in a while, at least in the past two years, from a losing streak, I guess,” Anthony Davis said. “But the only way is up. We really can’t get any lower than this.”

As ever, there are built-in excuses: that James and Davis are only just back off of long layoffs; that Dennis Schröder could not play after entering COVID-19 protocols; that the team is still working in Andre Drummond and Ben McLemore. But on balance against a Raptors team that has struggled this year and played without Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., the reasons just did not add up to what unfolded.

It was a costly slip-up for the Lakers, who could have moved back into sole fifth place as the Dallas Mavericks lost earlier in the afternoon. Instead, they found themselves stuck in a three-way tangle for spots five through seven with the Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers, who won their game against the Boston Celtics. Dallas owns the tiebreaker with the Lakers at the end of the season.

The returning players from last year’s championship run described the team as disconnected, in part because of the injuries and absences that have racked them during this pandemic afflicted season. But plenty, they acknowledged, is still within their control.

“I think we’re unhealthy and just not good enough,” Kyle Kuzma said. “Losing six is very tough, and we’ve all had winnable games during that stretch. And it’s just a little disappointing. We’re just not together as a whole — team, staff, everything.”

James had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists but was moving less nimbly than usual before he checked out at the 6:42 mark. While the Lakers pledged to see how his ankle responds overnight, the early exit bodes ill for his availability for Monday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets, and perhaps too for how much the Lakers can play him in their three other back-to-back series after this one.

The 36-year-old didn’t second-guess his decision to return on Friday, but in part because he couldn’t see how he could do it any other way with his team in need and practices few and far in-between.

“You never know until you get out there,” he said. “Because honestly some of the sharp pain that I’m feeling or the pain that I’m feeling on the floor I didn’t have during my workouts, during my training or during my running and things of that nature so the only way to test is to get out on the floor.”

The Raptors had a huge night from Pascal Siakam, who poured in 39 points, as well as Lowry (37 points, 11 assists), who was the subject of intense intrigue with the Lakers at the trade deadline. While the Lakers ultimately decided package centered around Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Talen Horton-Tucker was too high of a price, Lowry made a case for the road not taken.

The 35-year-old was an assassin when it counted most, nailing back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter when the Lakers had cut the 21-point lead down to 10 thanks to a bench-driven run. Another top-of-the-key 3-pointer crushed perhaps the last meaningful sign of life from the 2020 champs playing what’s left of the 2019 champs.

Tellingly: Raptors spot starters Stanley Johnson and Malachi Flynn did not score a single point.

“We’re just not playing well right now, you know what I mean: We’re working through that stuff,” coach Frank Vogel said. “They’re playing some bench guys. They’re playing with great energy that don’t typically get the opportunity and some of those possessions we look like we were stuck in mud.”

It was another uneven night from Davis, who drifted for stretches of his 5 for 16 performance, finishing with just 12 points. Andre Drummond had 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Kuzma led with 24 points off the bench.

The game started much more auspiciously, with the Lakers blistering to 38 points in the first quarter. Alex Caruso filled in as a starter, looking capable in Schröder’s relief, and Kuzma was red hot for 11 points on 4 for 5 shooting — including a baseline dunk that seemed to indicate the Lakers meant business.

But as has been the case recently, the early energy burned off as Lowry and Siakam got going. It hurt that the Lakers were foul-happy, putting Toronto to the line 18 times in the second quarter alone. The defensive inattentiveness helped players like Deandre’ Bembry successful cut to the hoop from behind.

It added up to a 40-21 Toronto edge in the pivotal second quarter. Coming out of what had to be a disappointing halftime break, the Lakers immediately surrendered five straight points to start the third quarter — their competitive fire missing in action.

After the Nuggets, the Lakers play the Clippers, the Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns — all Western playoff teams — in quick succession.

It might have been the play-in games shading his heels, but James openly voiced his disdain for the format in which the Lakers would have to win their way into the first round: “Whoever came up with that (expletive) need to be fired. But whatever.”

But he added that in his opinion, as long as the Lakers reach the fabled stage where they are all healthy, that’s the most important thing.

“It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if I’m not 100 percent or close to 100 percent,” he said. “It don’t matter where we land. That’s my mindset.”

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Lakers give Devontae Cacok first NBA start as they hope to get healthy soon

For the second straight game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel waited until 30 minutes before tip-off to reveal his starting lineup. But even though the Lakers might be concealing their hand as long as possible these days, it doesn’t change the cards.

Devontae Cacok, the two-way contract player who entered Tuesday night playing all of 30 minutes this season, got the first start of his career as the Lakers threw him in against Steven Adams and Zion Williamson. The Pelicans’ 62 points in the paint were a harsh reminder of how undermanned the Lakers’ frontcourt is without All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis and veteran center Marc Gasol.

Cacok finished with humble numbers, going 2 for 5 from the floor with four points and two rebounds in just over 13 minutes, but Vogel applauded his effort with the team in a difficult situation.

“He has advantages in other ways: With his speed, running the floor, defensive activity,” Vogel said. “I thought he played a good basketball game tonight. It’s one of those things: you’re short-handed, and you call on the guys that you need, and you work these stretches.”

There remains some time before any of them return to the lineup. Gasol might be the closest: The 36-year-old joined the Lakers on their trip to New Orleans, but Vogel said the 36-year-old Spaniard is still working on his conditioning to game shape.

“That’s on the medical team to keep working with him and his build back up to return to play,” he said. “So we’ll see. Until they tell me he’s cleared, this is the group that we got, and we gotta go win a game.”

A Chicago native who played his college ball at UNC-Wilmington, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Cacok has been with the Lakers since 2019, and joined them in the NBA bubble for the championship run last year but didn’t make any postseason appearances.

While the Pelicans clearly got the better of their Laker counterparts, Cacok, 24, said the adverse circumstances of his first NBA start didn’t discourage him at all.

“I’m on the best team in the NBA, in the world,” he said. “I take my time understanding that I was preparing, I’m going to stay prepared. Being able to get a chance regardless of what the situation might be is not going to knock me down. I’m still going to go out there just as if I was up there in the rotation.”

The Lakers have still only started Montrezl Harrell once this year, in accordance with the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year’s preference to come off the bench. But Vogel said Harrell will be willing to start when the Lakers need him to.

“If that’s necessary, we’ll do that,” he said. “If we decide we want to keep him in a bench role, we’ll do that. But he’s willing to do whatever the team needs.”

LAKERS HONOR BAYLOR WITH THROWBACK UNIFORMS

The white uniform with light blue stitching might not scream “Lakers” to the average fan, but the team’s “City” jerseys this season honor their era defined by Elgin Baylor. The throwbacks took on special meaning on Tuesday night, the team’s first game since the 86-year-old Hall of Famer died on Monday morning.

The Pelicans held a moment of silence in the Smoothie King Center in Baylor’s honor minutes before tip-off. Baylor coached the Jazz when they were based in New Orleans.

Vogel said his father used to regale him with stories about how good Baylor was as a player. Kyle Kuzma called Baylor “a great man” that he was pleased to meet during his Lakers tenure and marveled at Baylor’s 1961-62 season when he averaged a career-best 38.3 scoring mark while serving in the Army Reserve.

“He’s one of the pillars of not only Lakers basketball but of NBA history – one of the greatest players of all time,” he said. “For me, to be here in L.A. and just being able to meet one of the greats, I love it.”

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LeBron-less Lakers no match for Suns

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, left, and forward LeBron James watch from the sideline during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell (15) shoots over Phoenix Suns forward Abdel Nader (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) drives past Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and guard Devin Booker (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell shoots past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris, center, shoots over Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris (88) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker drives past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) drives past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Los Angeles Lakers forward Markieff Morris, left, drives on Phoenix Suns forward Abdel Nader (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

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The last month of the Lakers’ season has, at times, felt like a MacGyver-style operation, using the tools they have to survive.

On Sunday night, some promising tools emerged: Montrezl Harrell’s rolls and putbacks; Dennis Schröder’s speed and pressure; Talen Horton-Tucker’s crafty drives and finishes. It could always be worse.

But absent their most productive and versatile player, survival is going to be a much tougher prospect in the unforgiving wilderness of the Western Conference.

In their first game since LeBron James suffered a high-ankle sprain that is likely to sideline him for weeks, the Lakers (28-15) clawed but could not overcome Phoenix in a 111-94 defeat at Talking Stick Arena. The Suns (28-13) are technically just one spot ahead in the standings, but now tower over their division rivals who are playing the foreseeable future without their stars, with Anthony Davis’ absence stretching past a month.

Coach Frank Vogel kept an upbeat tone despite the grim circumstances that have the defending champions sailing into a challenging gamut ahead.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well, but I thought we competed at a very high level,” he said. “It’s gonna take a little time as we adjust, figure out where the shots are coming from and what our new identity is gonna look like.”

It certainly won’t look like the team that steamrolled the Suns without a problem in the preseason at full strength.

The difference was told in part by Phoenix’s pair of All-Stars: Devin Booker had 26 points to tie for team lead (DeAndre Ayton also had 26 points), firing a dagger 3-pointer with three minutes to play, while Chris Paul had a team-best 13 assists in a triple-double effort (11 points, 10 rebounds). Paul in particular added defensive menace to his typical role of floor general, adding two steals and block during a key fourth-quarter stretch when the Lakers whittled the lead down to seven points in an admirably scrappy effort.

But the Lakers aren’t looking for moral victories; they’re looking for actual victories. A sloppy shooting night, especially a 5-for-25 mark from 3-point range.

Harrell led the effort with 23 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Schröder had 22 points, while Horton-Tucker had 17. The Lakers trailed by as much as 18.

Schröder hinted that a winning formula might be found by shifting the pace into high gear.

“I think how we played before with them two on the court, it’s totally opposite now, I think,” he said. “I think we got to move the ball, we got to play with more pace. On the defensive end we got to be more scrappy. And, yeah, I mean everybody who is coming on the floor has got to be confident to knock down the shot or to impact the game on the defensive end.”

It stung a little that Paul, one of James’ close friends in the league, passed the kind of milestone that James has nightly, becoming just the sixth man to record 10,000 assists in NBA history joining John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson. He had the game ball tucked beneath his arm during his postgame press conference. Paul’s closest active pursuer is James (9,669), who certainly can’t gain ground in the walking boot he’s wearing for the time being.

Then again the way Paul hit 10,000 stung more than the fact that he did it: He flung a dime to Ayton for a powerful dunk as the Lakers’ defense slumped their shoulders in frustration.

Even though Phoenix coach Monty Williams preached caution beforehand of underestimating the Lakers even without their stars — “L.A.’s still the champs,” he said gamely — the gap between the teams was readily apparent from a 10-2 Suns rally to start. The Lakers never led.

The question became less if the Lakers can measure up to second-place Phoenix without James or Davis (they can’t) and more how far they’ll fall in their shadow in the packed Western Conference standings. They maintained third place even in the loss, but the Clippers are now just a game behind. The San Antonio Spurs, currently in the seventh-place spot for a play-in game, have just two fewer losses (17) than the Lakers.

One of the areas the Lakers were most in need of their missing players was pure size, as they struggled to wrangle in the 7-foot, 250 Ayton as he plowed through the paint. As defenders like Ketavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso were reduced to simply fouling the former first overall pick — and sometimes that didn’t even work.

But it wasn’t an effort without merit: The Lakers didn’t turn the ball over once in the first quarter and kept a reasonably close pace. Early in the second, it was a tight game at 33-31.

Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, they’ll have something to build on, even if it’s a humble place to start.

“It’s going to take a lot,” Harrell said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. We just lost LeBron last night in a tough back-to-back game, man, so we’re still learning.”

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