LOS ANGELES — The size the Lakers have been missing arrived all at once – specifically, at the 4:22 mark of the first quarter on Wednesday night.
That’s when 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis and 6-8 Rui Hachimura walked to the scorer’s table, eliciting a hearty round of cheers from the Crypto.com Arena crowd before they had scored a point or grabbed a rebound.
The Lakers navigated a 20-game stretch without Davis with a .500 record, as good as could have been expected. But simply seeing their superstar big man suit up again for the first time since Dec. 16 was a supreme relief.
Even typically sunny Coach Darvin Ham seemed somehow brighter during his pregame press conference, a weight off his shoulders and a major injection of help into his frontcourt: “Life is grand,” he said.
It might take a little time before Davis rounds into the form he was in before he got hurt, averaging 27.4 points and 12.1 rebounds as a two-way force. But Davis got rolling in his second-quarter minutes against the San Antonio Spurs, with three blocked shots to his credit before halftime.
Getting back was a feat, considering Davis’ foot. When he collided with the leg of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic mid-air last month, he fractured a spur in the navicular bone in his right foot and suffered a stress reaction. That led to a few weeks off his foot when Davis could only do weightlifting and spot shooting before gradually progressing to pool treadmills and other light conditioning work.
In the last week, Ham said, the Lakers were able to subject Davis to workouts with teammates, and other kinds of load-bearing drills that gave the 29-year-old All-Star and the team the confidence that he’s recovered enough to play.
“We would save him from himself if we thought there was any type of threat or harm that he could do to himself,” Ham said. “So he had these boxes that he had to check, and he’s checked all of them.”
While Davis didn’t appear in the starting lineup on Wednesday, he seemed happy enough to soak up team introductions as a key reserve. His teammates welcomed him back to their pregame ritual: Davis leaping, after a few fake-outs, into their assembled huddle.
Ham said bringing Davis off the bench was a strategy to keep him available to close the game if necessary. But throughout his injury rehab, the Lakers have tried to keep steps gradual, and notably without hard timelines. While a person with knowledge of Davis’ situation told Southern California News Group earlier this month there was hope he’d be healthy by the five-game road trip that begins Saturday in Boston, Ham said it was important for the team to not lay out a set schedule for a potentially unpredictable recovery.
“Well, we just didn’t want to make ourselves slaves to the clock, so to speak,” he said of Davis. “We didn’t want to make him feel like he’s missing a deadline or we’re expecting him back and he’s not available. We just wanted this process to play itself out slowly, methodically, and it did just that.”
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Another Laker who was initially considered questionable didn’t return to the lineup on Wednesday: Lonnie Walker IV missed his 14th consecutive game with left knee tendinitis. He and Austin Reaves are scheduled for a reevaluation on Friday before the team flies to Boston, bringing the roster tantalizingly close to full health.
Earlier in the month during a Thomas Bryant hot streak, the team speculated that Davis might play alongside another big in the starting lineup. By acquiring Hachimura via trade on Monday, the Lakers created an option to keep Davis at center, where he’s been effective this season, while still adding size to the group.
Ham said Hachimura coming off the bench was also to “ease him in” to his Lakers’ role, while also figuring out where he fits best. Hachimura had been able to review a video playbook and go through a scripting session before Wednesday’s game – for once, the Lakers feel like they have a little room to tool around, now that Davis is back.
“Not put that pressure on him that he’s got to have everything figured out from the word go, Ham said. “There’s going to be a period of discovery where we see how he fits and who he fits with, but the main thing is that he’s healthy, he’s excited to be here, we’re excited to have him and we’re looking forward to him being in the mix.”