Return of Anthony Davis has the Lakers feeling like the worst might be behind them

Anthony Davis, left, defends Brooklyn Nets' James Harden in his first game back from an injury.
Anthony Davis, left, defends Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden in his first game back from an injury.

(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Anthony Davis’ neon sneakers were greener than a traffic light, the first play in his first game back drawn up to prove that he was ready to go.

After winning the opening tip Tuesday in Brooklyn, Davis caught the ball at the top and quickly pushed it to LeBron James on the wing. Setting a soft screen while James drove toward the paint, Davis rolled to the rim, where he hung and caught a lob with one-hand for a dunk for his first points in more than a month.

“Obviously,” James said, “right away you see what he’s capable of.”

Davis’ return to the Lakers’ lineup comes at a critical time, the star big man needing to prove that his presence can lift the Lakers out of the rut they’ve been stuck in. In just their 16th game together this season, James, Davis and Russell Westbrook provided the Lakers with the clearest glimpse of what could be — the first play showing that Davis’ place on the Lakers shouldn’t be where any sacrifices occur.


Privately, they know he’s got to dominate. For the Lakers to be at their best, they need Davis’ competitive fires to burn.

In a season where the Lakers have had little good news to celebrate, Davis has actually been a gin of good fortune.

On Dec. 17 in Minnesota, Lakers coach Frank Vogel was one of those around the team who feared the worst — Davis being sent to the court, his left knee hit at an odd angle. TV cameras captured Davis falling to the ground on his way to the locker room, the team’s wildest hopes hinging on the tendons in his left knee.

The Lakers were already in the middle of an organization-wide COVID-19 outbreak. A realization that James and Westbrook probably wouldn’t be enough had already been established, and Davis’ long-term absence from the lineup couldn’t be viewed as anything other than fatal for the Lakers’ season.

Forward Stanley Johnson, a product of Santa Ana Mater Dei High, has signed a two-year deal with the Lakers following three 10-day contracts.

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But a day later, Vogel and the Lakers got good news after an MRI examination — Davis avoided serious injury and the need for surgery. That news was followed by Vogel testing positive for COVID-19 the very next morning.

But as the team boarded a train Wednesday for Philadelphia ahead of Thursday’s game with the 76ers, they did so as healthy as they’ve been all season. Only guard Kendrick Nunn remained on the team’s injury report as he tries to work back from a bone bruise that’s already spoiled two comeback attempts.


The team is also planning on signing Stanley Johnson to a two-year contract, guaranteeing the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star and No. 8 overall draft pick will be with the team through this season. The Lakers will have a team option for next year, people with knowledge of the deal said.

The plan is to finalize the deal Thursday before the Lakers play the 76ers.

The timing, with the Lakers needing to slow down Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, couldn’t be any better.

“We look forward to the next challenge playing against a great Philly team that’s been playing exceptional basketball, got one of the hottest guy in the league in Joel,” James said. “So as we continue to get better, we’re going to continue to log these minutes and see what happens next.”

Without Davis, the Lakers nearly cratered. Vogel was the subject of ongoing coaching change rumors while the Lakers went 7-10. Before Tuesday’s game, Vogel made one of the most public admissions that adding Westbrook hasn’t gone the way the team had hoped.

“I think we would all hoped to have been better,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we went out to get Russ is to handle one of those guys being out better than we did last year. So, 7-10 is something where we wish we could’ve done better.”

While James starred in his absence, Davis watched the Lakers struggle on defense.

Anthony Davis helps the Lakers regain some of their missing chemistry, but it was LeBron James who carried them to a 106-96 victory over the Nets.

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“We weren’t talking and just weren’t in the right position,” Davis said. “So I tried to come in and just quarterback the whole defense.”


And despite James and Vogel both saying that they want James to keep pushing, Davis knows he’s ready to help.

“It was fun to watch,” Davis said of James’ run. “And now, [it’s] trying to complement that where he don’t have to feel as much pressure to have to carry such a load. It’s my job, and our job and everybody’s job to kind of take that pressure off him and just help him.”