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Column: Anthony Davis injury scare a reminder of how critical he is to Lakers’ success

Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and forward Anthony Davis (3) cheer during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center on Tuesday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A sore shoulder had made Anthony Davis a doubtful starter for the Lakers on Tuesday but he gave it a go and was cleared just before the game, a decision he followed up by playing a powerful first quarter against Memphis.

Davis collected all five of the Lakers’ offensive rebounds and nine of the 13 total rebounds they pulled down in the first 12 minutes, in addition to taking 13 of their 26 shots and scoring a game-high 16 points. He also was credited with a block, continuing his success in an area that has become a strength for the Lakers in this young season.

But then he vanished. Davis left the Lakers’ bench two minutes into the second quarter and all of a sudden it felt as if the team’s short-term future was hanging in the balance, not merely the outcome of a Tuesday game in October.

“I was prepared to go the rest of the game without him,” coach Frank Vogel said. “He went in the back and we were getting close to the time in the rotation where he was going to go back in and he wasn’t around. I thought all night there was a chance that we could have to play the game without him, so we were prepared to do so.”

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As it turned out, Davis — who injured his right shoulder on Sunday — needed only to have his shoulder retaped, and he returned with six minutes and 34 seconds left in the second quarter. Initially, at least, he stayed on the perimeter and didn’t take a shot until 29 seconds remained in the half, when he hit a short turnaround, and he triggered loud cheers when he sent the Lakers into the locker room with a 49-47 lead on a tip with seven-tenths of a second left.

“I was really just trying to figure it all out. It bothered me a lot,” Davis said. “It was very sore but I didn’t want to come out of the game so I just came to the back [locker room] to adjust some things. It felt good to go back out and I went back out late in the second. It felt good. Went out in the third, it felt good.”

But before the Lakers broke the game open in the third quarter and completed a 120-91 rout, Davis gave the sellout crowd occasion to hold its breath a few more times, especially when he fell heavily to the floor and landed on his right shoulder late in the third quarter after he had pulled down his 17th rebound.

Teammate Dwight Howard extended an arm to pull him up, and fans exhaled heartily and collectively when Davis smiled at Howard’s offer of assistance.

Asked after the game how the shoulder felt, Davis was stoic. “I’m fine. Obviously it’s still a little sore. I hit it a couple times tonight,” he said. “But we’ve got a couple days before we play again.”

Davis showed little emotion on the floor as he absorbed a persistent pounding for 30 minutes while scoring 40 points — including a franchise-record 26 free throws made on 27 attempts — and pulling down 20 rebounds in addition to being credited with two blocks and two assists. It was the fourth 40-20 game of his career and the first by a Laker since Shaquille O’Neal had 48 points and 20 rebounds against Boston on March 21, 2003.

Davis was lucky that his absence in the second quarter turned out to be short and inconsequential, but the shoulder soreness he took into the game and the doubt that prevailed about his status before the game were painful reminders that one major injury to Davis or to LeBron James could derail the Lakers’ season.

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One twisted knee, one wrecked wrist, one torn ligament suffered by Davis or James has the potential to turn the Lakers’ reasonable hopes of success into unreasonable dreams. Even a minor injury to either of them would stretch the team’s depth and undo the modest progress they’ve made under Vogel, who has had to undo years of defensive indifference and has pushed them to take pride in their work at that end of the floor.

Maybe Davis, who on Sunday in a 29-point, 14-rebound performance against Charlotte, shouldn’t have played against Memphis in order to be sure the soreness didn’t become something that might keep him out awhile.

In the fourth game of a Lakers season that at long last is expected to go well beyond 82 regular-season games — and with a trip about to begin on Friday that will have them play three games in five days — there was no reason to push him or take any chance the shoulder might become a chronic problem.

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But Davis wanted to play and he wanted to be part of the atmosphere the Lakers are building, part of the swaying on the bench and cheering for each other as their lead ballooned.

“It’s fun,” he said. “We celebrate every shot, every rebound, every great play and coach sees it, we see it. We like doing it. We like cheering for our teammates.”

Davis gave them plenty to cheer about on Tuesday. But he and the Lakers were fortunate that his absence was brief and his injury manageable.

A serious injury and long absence could throw off what is shaping up as an entertaining season at the least and, at best, a remarkably successful one.


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