Plaschke: No Anthony Davis? Struggling Lakers have no chance if he’s out

LOS ANGELES, CA - MACH 16: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers rebounds.

It was a forearm to the eye.

It was a punch to the gut.

It was routine contact on a routine drive.

It was an extraordinary symbol of a season skidding.

In the final minutes of the first quarter of the Lakers‘ nationally televised showdown with the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, Anthony Davis was smacked in the face by the Warriors’ Trayce Jackson-Davis.

The eye was quickly swollen shut. The Lakers’ hopes were instantly impaired.

Davis couldn’t see, so the Lakers couldn’t win, and now their spring might not survive after a deflating 128-121 loss at a mournful Arena.

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“Any time you lose AD … it’s tough,” Austin Reaves said. “But we’ve got to figure out a way to be better.”

Too late. They can’t figure out a way. They can’t be better. They can’t win without Davis, period. Even though he’s not expected to miss much time with what the Lakers are calling an “eye contusion,” his absence Saturday sent a chilling reminder about the rest of this season.

The Lakers are walking a tightrope where one errant smack upon their lanky superstar can send the entire franchise tumbling.

Contrary to national opinion, the most important person on this team, the most vital cog on both ends of the floor, is not LeBron James.

As the gleefully driving and soaring and dunking Warriors will attest after Saturday night, it’s Davis.

“Obviously when you lose AD, it hurts the balance of our team,” acknowledged James, who scored 40 desperately futile points. “It’s tough when you have a big component to the puzzle, then you don’t have it.”

When they had Davis on Saturday night, they led by six. Without him, they were outscored by 13.

When they had Davis, they outscored the Warriors by 10 points in the paint. Without him, they were outscored by 18 in the paint.

In a crazy fourth quarter during which the Warriors closed out the Lakers amid a roaring crowd begging for defense, Golden State made one outside shot … and 11 shots in the lane or closer.

Jaxson Hayes, who replaced Davis, can be a hustling force. But Hayes never stood a chance.

Fourth quarter begins. Jackson-Davis hook shot. Brandin Podziemski layup. Chris Paul runner. Paul fadeaway runner. Two passes to an alley-ooping Andrew Wiggins. You get the picture.

Davis would have swatted or altered or just plain stopped much of that mess. During a rejuvenated season in which he is arguably the league’s best defensive presence, his absence was ruinous.

“It has a lot to do with that,” said D’Angelo Russell, who was an awful nine for 21 and a minus-14. “We’re not accustomed to playing without him … it’s something that’s unfamiliar for us.”

The Lakers ended the night grumbling about the official removing an apparent James three-pointer in the final minutes because replay showed his heel was out of bounds — no, I’ve never seen a replay entirely wipe out a three-pointer either.

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They also were upset that consistent shot-clock malfunctions caused four late delays, meaning it took 22 minutes to play the final 1:50, ending any chance of the Lakers building last-gasp momentum. It was so surreal, venerable public address announcer Lawrence Tanter ended the game announcing the time remaining on the shot clock in five-second intervals, all while still announcing the action, a superhuman effort.

It was a little crazy, but it was crazy for both teams, one of which had all its stars, and the other one missing its anchor, and that was the difference.

“When you lose one of your main pieces, it’s gonna change your rotation, it’s gonna change the groups and the lineups that you’re accustomed to having out there,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It eliminates size; they’re a smaller team at the rim, so it takes another seven-footer out of the game for us. But it’s tough.”

And if they’re not careful, it’s going to get tougher.

Lakers stars Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James gesture before Saturday's game against the Warriors.

Lakers stars Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James gesture before Saturday’s game against the Warriors. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Lakers fall into a virtual tie with the Warriors in the ninth and 10th spots in the Western Conference, meaning both teams would have to win two play-in games to qualify for the actual playoffs.

Anybody think these Lakers can beat both the Warriors and either the Dallas Mavericks or Sacramento Kings in consecutive games in a span of a few days? Anybody?

“It’s going to take everything to scrape out some wins this time of the year,” Russell said.

On the positive side for the Lakers, they are finishing the season with a favorable stretch. They should be favored in eight of their next nine games, and will complete their schedule being favored in 11 of their final 14 games.

On the negative side, in the last four days they’ve lost to both Sacramento and Golden State, and if they can’t beat those similar teams in playoff circumstances … well, the situation is so potentially dire, the Lakers even inserted a slide in a recent film session that explained their place in the standings.

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And then Ham urged them all to fearlessly finish.

“The biggest thing we always talk about is … having the next-play mentality,” Ham said. “I don’t want our guys to get weighed down by the circumstance that we’re playing under … the fear of dropping games.”

He added, “I need them to be in a good mental space and know that we can control our own destiny. It gets heavy.”

Anthony Davis has a shiner, and things just got heavier.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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