Lakers sit ‘pain-free’ Anthony Davis against Thunder out of caution

OKLAHOMA CITY — Amid a cutthroat playoff chase, in a winnable game against a team jockeying alongside them in the Western Conference standings, the Lakers decided to sit star big man Anthony Davis for precautionary reasons.

It’s a potentially high-stakes decision that goes squarely against what Coach Darvin Ham said less than a week before: “Barring any type of injury, I don’t see anybody being out of the lineup.” But now with All-Star LeBron James set to miss several weeks with a foot injury, the Lakers are proceeding with caution – even if it costs them a playoff berth this year.

Ham’s tone Wednesday night before tip-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder (28-33) was dramatically different from the all-in-to-win tack the Lakers (29-33) had adopted since the trade deadline. He said the decision was made in a meeting with the coaching staff and medical staff.

“We’re trying to win all of these games,” Ham said. “But as I mentioned the other night in regards to LeBron, due to the circumstance we don’t want the circumstances of winning or losing games to dictate how we handle our players’ health.”

The decision was made on Wednesday, when the Lakers were hovering in 12th place, just a half-game ahead of the Thunder, who beat them in February, spoiling a record-breaking night from James. As of Wednesday morning, the Lakers were three games out of a guaranteed playoff position (top six), and a game out of the 10th seed – the last of the four play-in spots. The Lakers were also without D’Angelo Russell, who missed his third straight game with a right ankle sprain.

Davis played 35 minutes in Tuesday night’s loss in Memphis, scoring a team-best 28 points with 19 rebounds and five blocked shots. While the 29-year-old hit the deck several times in the game, he gave reporters no indication afterward that his injury had flared up, or that there had been any other setback.

Davis missed 20 consecutive games earlier this season with a right foot stress reaction, an injury that Davis acknowledged in December will likely need further evaluation and possibly surgery this offseason. He missed a Jan. 30 game in Brooklyn during his ramp-up back from injury for precautionary reasons, playing the second night of the back-to-back against the Knicks. Davis has played in 38 of 63 possible games this season, and  114 of 217 possible games over the last three seasons because of various injuries.

“That’s just what it is: being mindful,” Ham said. “With any type of stress reaction, the wear-and-tear, you constantly have to monitor that. We talked about all of that. We discussed it. And that’s where it’s at.”

But on the other hand, Ham described Davis as playing “pain-free,” which sets up a vexing contradiction. Despite Ham’s recent sentiment that his players would play back-to-backs as long as they are healthy, he said Wednesday that the plan for Davis was discussed “weeks ago” by the Lakers’ staff.

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The biggest change since is James’ availability: The 38-year-old left the road trip early after suffering a right foot injury on Sunday that is expected to keep him out for weeks. James returned to L.A. for further medical evaluation. At least one report from The Athletic indicated that James had chosen to play through discomfort before the injury.

The specter of potentially causing injury to another star in rapid succession – “it’s a stress reaction, so anything could set that thing off,” Ham said – seemed to loom over the evening. Davis, a competitive spirit who has been frustrated by his injury-prone reputation over the years, is “frustrated as hell,” according to Ham.

“The last thing that we want to do is have a situation with A.D. where we’re pushing and pushing and pushing on the front end and something happens just because of the workload and now for the duration, or longevity piece he’s not available at all,” he added. “So we feel confident in our medical staff and the plan that’s been put into place, was put into place. And it’s going to be tough. You guys are going to have your questions, the player is going to want to play and you’re managing all that but you have to stick to your plan.”

Darvin Ham explains to the media why AD is sitting out tonight’s game.

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) March 2, 2023

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