Anthony Davis guts through ankle injury to inspire the Lakers’ best win this season

Anthony Davis guts through ankle injury to inspire the Lakers’ best win this season

MINNEAPOLIS – As made his way to the tunnel directly behind the visitor’s basket in the waning seconds of the Friday, the swath of Laker fans who invaded the Target Center crowd rose to their feet in unison.

Roughly an hour earlier, at the 6:35 mark of the third quarter, those same fans watched the fate of the Lakers’ season flash before their eyes. They saw Davis go up for a defensive rebound, land awkwardly near a teammate’s foot and crumple to the floor, writhing in pain while clutching his left ankle.

The timing couldn’t possibly have been worse. The , finally healthy and jelling for the first time all season, were locked in a pivotal matchup against the , with the winner, at a minimum, gaining pole position in the race for the West’s No. 7 seed. At the time, they faced an eight-point deficit and the prospect of losing their anchor for the rest of the game, if not longer.

He got up on his own, then immediately collapsed. He used multiple teammates and coaches to help him up, limping over to the bench during the Lakers’ ensuing timeout. While his team regrouped, he mustered up the strength to shake off the discomfort. He bounced on his ankle, testing it out. Then, as play was about to resume, he walked over to the scorer’s table and tightened the laces on his pink Nike LeBron 20 sneaker.

Despite gingerly lumbering up and down the floor, unable to run without a limp, Davis detonated for 17 fourth-quarter points, including 12 straight over a four-minute span midway through the frame. With co-star encouraging him loudly from the sidelines to keep dominating, Davis overpowered the Timberwolves in the paint and the mid-post area on one foot. When his work was done and a much-needed Lakers victory was secured, Davis hopped to the locker room as hundreds, if not thousands of visiting Lakers fans cheered and clapped in amazement at his gutsy 38-point, 17-rebound performance.

“I knew I was going to play regardless,” Davis said. “Just that initial tweak, a little bit of pain and throbbing and stuff. Just let it kinda calm down. But I didn’t want to stay too long and then it throbs more. Tied the shoes up tighter and just kinda played off adrenaline until the end of the game and was able to get some treatment. But I’ll be fine.”
Anthony Davis overcame this ankle injury to lead the Lakers to victory. (Photo: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

With the victory, their fifth in six games and 14th in 21 since the Lakers improved to 39-38, exceeding .500 for the first time this season. They leapfrogged Minnesota (39-39) into No. 7 in the West – the highest they’ve been in the standings – and now trail the (41-37) by 1 1/2 games for the final automatic playoff spot, with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand. (The Lakers have the same record as the eighth-place , but also owns that head-to-head tiebreaker).

“(Davis) changed the game for us,” said Jarred Vanderbilt, who played a crucial role in holding Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards to 11 points on 4-16 shooting. “That’s just a testament to who he is. He could have easily sat out the game and been subbed out, but he wanted to stay in because he knew how big this game was for us and just shout-out to him for just sticking with it and fighting through injury and adversity and having that big stretch.”

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham called Davis’ insistence on playing through his pain “a huge step forward for our ball club,” considering the stakes of the game and Davis’ injury history.

“You have to have that one pivotal force that’s leading the charge, and in our case, with this particular team here in the moment, it’s AD,” Ham said. “When he comes out and he’s aggressive and we’re feeding him and he’s not settling and he’s putting pressure on the paint, putting pressure on the rim, we find ourselves having a lot of success. … When he’s going and he’s cooking, everyone gets to eat.”

Davis shot 15-for-26 from the floor and 8-for-10 from the free-throw line, adding a steal and two blocks in 37 minutes. His play through the injury sparked the Lakers’ 24-2 third-quarter run, which flipped the game on its head. Then, once Minnesota’s left the game with an apparent knee injury midway through the fourth, Davis took advantage of Karl-Anthony Towns’ defensive limitations to score hit five straight field goals and score 12 straight points.

“He kicked our a– in every way possible,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch told reporters. “On the glass, in the post, the mid-post, at the nail. He’s playing at a super high level right now. Obviously, really hard to contain him.”

Davis headed to the locker room once the game was secure to get treatment on what Ham tentatively referred to as a “twisted ankle.” But Davis made it clear: He’s playing against the Sunday in Houston.

James, playing in his third game since , continued to look progressively more like his old self. He had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 32 minutes, one more minute than he played in Chicago on Wednesday. He said he will play Sunday in Houston as well. (Of note: Los Angeles’ flight to Houston was canceled because of a snowstorm in Minneapolis, so they will fly to Houston on Saturday afternoon instead.)

It’s getting better,” James said. “My rhythm is still not quite there yet as it was before the injury, but I was out for four weeks. I understand that. So, I think each game, each minute, as my wind starts to get back too, I can play a little bit longer in spurts. But I was happy to be able to get two dunks – one in transition, the other one in a halfcourt set – and seeing my foot kind of react to it and the rest of the body too.”

The Lakers have been playing do-or-die games for more than a month, but Friday’s tilt felt the most like a playoff game given the increased stakes in a crowded Western Conference. The raucous Timberwolves’ crowd, perhaps the loudest the Lakers have faced this season, reverberated ear-ringing “Beat !” chants before the tip. It was a hostile environment, and the Lakers thrived in it.

In their most important game of the season to date, Ham trimmed the rotation, with only eight players logging more than 10 minutes. The contributions extended beyond Davis, James and Vanderbilt. (12 points and 10 assists) kickstarted Los Angeles’ dynamic transition attack against his former team. (15 points) continued his offensive tear. and provided a boost off the bench with their energy, and Hachimura’s post defense against Towns was an under-the-rader key to the second half turnaround. largely held his own against Towns and Gobert off the bench. Even , the ninth man in this game, broke out of his shooting slump in a familiar setting with nine points on 3-of-4 from 3.

At a minimum, the Lakers are now favored to secure the No. 7 seed in the West, meaning they’d have home-court advantage in the Play-In tournament and could advance to the playoffs with a single victory. But they still aren’t satisfied, especially with their goal of getting up to No. 6 and out of the Play-In tournament entirely looking increasingly possible.

“Just know that we can’t be fat and happy,” Ham said. “There are more things that we have to conquer. And that starts in Houston on Sunday night.”

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