LOS ANGELES —Staples Center was nearly empty, the lights on the clocks not yet lit, while Anthony Davis went through the routine. He stepped to the side and shot, watching the high-arcing jumper against a blank backdrop.
And while there was serenity in the hours before Game 6 of the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, Davis wasn’t going to miss the excitement that was going to follow.
With the Lakers’ season on the line, it didn’t matter if Davis’ groin muscle was still strained. He needed to be on the court.
“He very much wants to be in there,” Frank Vogel said before Thursday’s must-win game. “He’s doing everything he can.”
And “everything he can” was a little less than six minutes.
While Devin Booker torched the Lakers’ defense for 22 points in the first quarter, and 47 points the end of a 113-100 Phoenix win, Davis’ night was already done, his strained groin too painful to allow him to contribute. He left the game midway through the first. And by the end of the quarter, the Lakers trailed by 22.
His rehabilitation and recovery were somehow enough to get Davis back on the court and in the starting lineup, but it was clear he wouldn’t be a lot of help.
He didn’t look comfortable, wincing as he went through the earliest stages of pregame warmup. After being introduced as a starter to a roar, Davis walked into the players’ pregame huddle instead of leaping into it like he normally does.
He exited after trying to contest a Booker shot. He signaled to the bench that he needed to come out before crumbling on the sidelines. He then limped to the locker room.
He finished with one rebound, one assist and didn’t attempt a shot.
The Lakers’ star missed the second half of Game 4 and all of Game 5, both Lakers losses. Without him, the offense was miserable, the team unable to create space for LeBron James and Dennis Schroder to operate on the inside. On the perimeter, the Lakers continued to squander good looks, their confidence clearly shaken by all the misses.
In an effort to undo some of that, Vogel shuffled his starting lineup, re-inserting Marc Gasol at center for Game 6 while moving Andre Drummond to the bench. The opposite happened midseason when the Lakers signed Drummond, then one of the most-coveted free agents on the buyout market.
But with the Lakers craving space and Gasol’s high IQ, Vogel made the change.
“It’s not difficult,” Vogel said pregame when asked about making a big adjustment. “Everyone understands each game is going to be different throughout a series. Each game, there’s going to be adjustments.
“It’s a chess match, and our players understand that.”
The Lakers also had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back in the lineup after shutting him down in the second half of Game 5 because of a sore knee. He gave them a flurry in the second quarter, scoring on three-straight possessions, but by then, the Suns were already up 20.
Davis has undergone another round of questions about his toughness and durability after this latest injury fight. Davis played in only 36 of 72 games this season after suffering a lower leg injury that cost him more than two months.
In the Lakers two wins of the series, he dominated, averaging 34 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
He then hyperextended his left knee during the Lakers’ Game 3 win, vowing that he would be on the court for Game 4. Davis limped through warmups and favored the leg early in Sunday’s loss, leading to him favoring the leg and eventually pulling his groin near the end of the first half.
“It’s been the tale of our season,” Davis said Wednesday. “It’s just been like this all year. It started from the beginning of this season, injuries, COVID, you name it.
“We’ve been through it all.”
And at least on the most important day of the season, Davis did what he could to go through it with his teammates.
He just couldn’t.