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  • Rene Ramirez

How the Lakers' victory over the Warriors encapsulates the extent of their LeBron-less playoff hopes

- By Rene Ramirez

A week has passed since the playoff chances of the re-tooled Los Angeles Lakers took a LeBron James-sized hit after the star forward sustained a right foot injury. Later specified as a right foot tendon injury by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the timeline of James’ return was officially established as 3 weeks, at minimum. Expectations and the roles of players 2-14 grew exponentially as the Lakers had already dug themselves into a position with little wiggle room to make the playoffs. Fast-forward to the Lakers’ 113-105 victory over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in a matinee matchup, and the apparency of what it will take for the purple and gold to earn a playoff position becomes clearer.

1. Anthony Davis’ renaissance within the #1 role

It’s been four years since Davis was labeled “the guy” on a team. Playing under the shadow of one of the game’s greatest, as well as constant injuries, have been the main factors in Davis’ delayed transfer of leadership to the Lakers. Two-way domination took form for Davis through 39 points and a frontcourt defensive presence that contributed to the limitation of the high-powered Warrior offense to 105 points on 40% overall efficiency. Davis’ ability to seal the game with six points in the final three minutes served as the cherry on top of the W-shaped cake.

This recent performance is part of a trend for Davis, as he’s now averaging a 34-12-3 stat line in his past four games.

The chances of the Lakers even sniffing a spot in the playoffs start and end with the continuation of the big man’s reinvigorated sense of play.

2. Continued contributions from newly acquired starters

The Lakers underwent an overhaul of nearly half the team prior to the trade deadline. Of the six new players on the roster, three were starter replacements. Of these three, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt, who were both acquired from the Utah Jazz in a three-team trade, have become immediate contributors. Against the Warriors specifically, Vanderbilt crashed the boards 13 times and ended the game with both a team and season-high +25 plus/minus. Vanderbilt’s double-digit rebound performance was also his second in four games, previously grabbing 17 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks, eight of which came on the offensive glass. It’s also important to note the defensive support Vanderbilt’s arrival has had on the Lakers' frontcourt, directly contributing to a league-best defensive rating of 101.4 since the trade deadline.

Vanderbilt’s identity as the heart and soul of the team gives the Lakers something they’ve lacked in previous tightly-contested games, where hard work is on even ground with talent.

Even in a relatively modest game for Beasley, having only 12 points on 44% efficiency, the spacing created by his dangerous status as a three-point shooter as well as his constant motion on offense covertly opened up opportunities for Davis to score in the paint. In a role that has been left vacant since Malik Monk’s departure in the offseason, Beasley provides the Lakers the capability of closing or extending leads in a streaky fashion.

3. D’Angelo Russell’s timely return from injury

The lack of ball-handling depth became more and more obvious as the Lakers-Warriors game progressed. Dennis Schröder has fluctuated between primary and tertiary ball-handling duties throughout the season but in the 33 minutes played against the Warriors, he was heavily relied upon to carry the ball upcourt after constantly running marathons trying to defend the game’s greatest off-ball player and shooter in Stephen Curry. Schröder was somewhat alleviated by Lonnie Walker IV and Austin Reaves, however, neither truly fit the play-initiator mold. Thankfully, D’Angelo Russell, who is now in his second stint with the Lakers, was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves to effectively transition the team’s offense characterized by high-speed and near recklessness to efficiency through tempo. Russell’s surface-level stats have slowly regressed since his Brooklyn Net days, however, in turn, his efficiency is at a career-high this season, exemplified by his 60.1 TS% and 56.4 eFG%. This is a significant upgrade from Schröder and former Laker guard Russell Westbrook’s level of efficiency. Unfortunately, Russell sustained a right ankle sprain on a freak play after stepping on Donte DiVincenzo’s foot on an inbound play in the previous Lakers-Warriors matchup.

Although a small sample, the Lakers had been 3-1 in games that Russell started, a sign of encouragement for his imminent return, which head coach Darvin Ham says to be on “day-to-day” status.

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