LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis was ruled out of the second half of Thursday night’s 118-94 loss to the LA Clippers because of back spasms, giving the Los Angeles Lakers two stars — along with LeBron James — who made their return from a long-term injury only to go back on the mend with the regular season quickly slipping away.
The loss, their seventh in the past nine games, dropped the Lakers to 37-29, identical to the Portland Trail Blazers, whom L.A. plays on Friday.
The Lakers are seeded No. 6, ahead of Portland, which currently occupies a play-in tournament slot at No. 7, even though the teams are 1-1 in their season series so far. L.A. has the tiebreaker edge because it has a better record versus Western Conference opponents.
Davis, playing in his eighth game since missing nine weeks because of a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in his right leg, played nine minutes in the first quarter and scored four points on 2-for-9 shooting with one rebound. The Clippers outscored the Lakers by 10 in the time Davis was on the court.
Davis exited the game with 2 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the first quarter and did not return. He was evaluated by team medical staff during the second quarter before the team announced shortly after the third quarter began that he would not return.
Davis tweaked his right ankle after backpedaling into a video board on the sideline following a 3-point attempt in the first quarter, but he said the real issue was his back.
“The back locked up pretty bad,” he said.
Davis said he expects to play against the Blazers in what he dubbed “probably the biggest game” out of the six dates remaining on the Lakers’ regular-season schedule.
“I think we’ve just got to win the game, for real, for real,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said.
Even with Davis in the lineup, L.A. will be undermanned against a hot Blazers team coming off a 5-1 road trip that culminated with a 36-point win in Cleveland on Wednesday. Dennis Schroder is out for at least another week because of the league’s health and safety protocols. Talen Horton-Tucker has also been ruled out with a calf strain.
And then there’s James, L.A.’s four-time Finals MVP, who won’t even be making the trip.
James played two games last week after returning from a high right ankle sprain before needing to leave the lineup the past two games to continue his rehab. Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James would also miss the Blazers game, at a minimum.
James was not on the bench Thursday night or for Monday’s win against the Denver Nuggets. When Vogel was asked if James’ absence was medically related, he replied succinctly, “No.” When another reporter followed up, asking why James was not present, Vogel said, “He’s just not here,” before mentioning that James did accompany the team at Thursday’s shootaround.
Both of James’ absences were considered to be excused by the Lakers to allow James time to “stay off the ankle,” a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.
A loss on Friday would put the Lakers in the No. 7 spot, a full game behind Portland with just five games left to play. The Lakers and Blazers both have the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets on their remaining schedules. L.A.’s other three games — New York, Indiana and New Orleans — have a combined record of 98-100 (.495). Portland’s other three opponents — San Antonio, Utah and Denver — have a combined record of 123-74 (.624).
Davis initially went as far as to say that the Lakers could use the play-in tournament.
“I mean, we don’t look at it as something bad,” Davis said. “To be honest, we need a lot of games. We need games to get back accustomed to each other, anyway.”
In the next breath, however, he walked back his comments somewhat.
“Obviously, we don’t want to go that route,” he said. “But if it happens, it happens. We’re gonna win games in the play-in and then get ready for whoever we play in the first round and take care of business from there. So, we look at it as game reps in the play-in. And if not, then we got a little bit more practice time to get accustomed to each other. So, either way, we’re fine either way.”
Markieff Morris didn’t want to entertain the thought.
“I think I’ve said before, we wasn’t thinking about the damn play-in game,” Morris said. “If it happens, it happens. If we’re healthy, s—, I would want to avoid us if I was the top two teams.”
If the Lakers finish the regular season seeded No. 7 or No. 8, they will be guaranteed at least two more games in the play-in tournament, needing to win one to qualify for the first round of the playoffs.
The Nos. 7 and 8 teams face off and the teams seeded Nos. 9 and 10 will also play. The winner of the 7-8 game advances to the first round, and the loser of that game plays the winner of the 9-10 game to determine the final playoff berth in each conference.
“The play-in tournament is out of my control,” Vogel said Thursday. “If we’re in it, we’ll compete and we’ll win those games so that we can try to advance. Whether we should have one or not is really not up to me. So I don’t spend too much time or thought on whether it’s good or not.”