Lakers forced to dig deep without LeBron James, Dennis Schroder in win over Nuggets

Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma shoots as Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. defends and guard Alex Caruso watches.
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma shoots as Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. defends and guard Alex Caruso watches during the first half Monday at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

They were pawns in an international controversy and supporting actors in an unthinkable tragedy. They had their life’s work threatened by a pandemic, only to seize an unprecedented opportunity inside the NBA’s self-constructed bubble.

And even as their superstars battled injuries, the hope that things would be OK once they returned sustained them.

Through all of it, they were remarkably steady, displaying championship-level toughness physically and mentally. But even champions have their limits.


“Our team is a little shook right now,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged before Monday’s 93-89 win over Denver.

It was a stunning admission from Vogel, the man who repeatedly has said his team was good enough to win even if LeBron James and Anthony Davis were out, that the Lakers’ depth would carry them through the choppy waters guaranteed by playing a compressed schedule during a pandemic.

Monday night at Staples Center, the frustrations didn’t zap any of the Lakers’ fight, the team missing James and Dennis Schroder and still grinding out a tough win — just their second since April 18.

The losing they had endured was like a hot compress on an abscess, bringing everything to the surface. After losing on Sunday to the out-of-contention Toronto Raptors and watching James exit the game after aggravating the sprained ankle that cost him a month, Lakers players sounded off.

Lakers star LeBron James is out tonight vs. Nuggets while point guard Dennis Schroder likely will miss the next 10-14 days while in COVID-19 protocols.

Kyle Kuzma said he thought Vogel should consider playing Marc Gasol. Davis said the Lakers had lost their swagger and needed to start acting like the defending champions. James said none of it would matter if he wasn’t close to 100%.

Oh, and whoever thought up the whole play-in tournament thing? James thinks that person should be fired.

It all happened on a day when Schroder entered the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. While the team didn’t disclose whether he tested positive, Schroder had told German media that he was unsure about receiving the vaccine in mid-April.

Monday, Vogel said Schroder would be out 10 to 14 days, essentially scratching him for the remainder of the regular season.

Vogel said a lot of Lakers players and staff had access to the vaccine on April 16, right after it was made available widely in L.A. County.

“We definitely pointed out to our whole team the benefits of as many guys getting vaccinated as possible. And how there’s competitive advantages to it. There’s just, for lack of a better word, lifestyle advantages of doing it. We can do more team-oriented stuff if we reach 85% [vaccination rate]. All those types of things. Less testing,” Vogel said in a pregame videoconference. “All those things were laid out very clearly for our guys and we showed all of them the benefits. But at the end of the day, like I said, it’s their own personal choice and we respect that.”

Lakers forward Anthony Davis shoots as Denver Nuggets guard PJ Dozier watches.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis shoots as Denver Nuggets guard PJ Dozier watches during the first half on Monday at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Down Schroder and James, the Lakers can’t even turn to Davis to fully take over because the two players best at getting him the ball in the right spots are shelved. For the second straight game, Alex Caruso started in Schroder’s place, becoming the point guard with James out.

But Caruso is best as a defensive pest who can finish in transition and spot up on the perimeter — certainly not as the primary playmaker.

It’s not going to be perfect as long as James is rehabbing his right ankle, and even when he’s able to return, there’s hardly a guarantee things will be fixed. But without them, the Lakers need to bottle up as much of their energy from Monday’s game as possible.

Maybe the venting worked. Against the hottest team in the Western Conference, the Lakers managed to play with a desperation and competitiveness they lacked in losses to Sacramento and Toronto, turning the game into an ugly, defensive fight.

Lakers star LeBron James is not happy about play-in games and says if he’s not 100%, a title repeat is out of the question. Health is No. 1 priority.

Neither team could get any separation, with possessions taking on greater importance. As the Lakers forced the clock to expire right at the half because of a mid-court trap, Caruso pounded his hands together before celebrating with Vogel and the bench.

The Lakers finally built a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter thanks to Gasol and Wesley Matthews, two veterans who had fallen out of Vogel’s rotation because of the Lakers’ trimmed depth chart.

As they checked out, things got shaky again, a 14-point lead fading to two.

Davis, after missing jumper after jumper during Denver’s comeback, hit a floater in the lane and Talen Horton-Tucker capped a big second half with a putback to hold off the Nuggets, setting up Davis for the game-sealing blocked shot.

It was a huge lift, helping the Lakers again, if only for 48 minutes, find stable ground.