When the Lakers needed him most on Friday, Anthony Davis let them down.
When they were ahead of Dallas by four points with 7.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter and needed him to be smart, he foolishly contested a three-point shot by Maxi Kleber and was called for a foul. Kleber, who had taken only 24 free throws before Friday and made 58% of them, hit all three to cut the Lakers’ lead to one point.
When they needed Davis to hit a pair of free throws with 6.7 seconds left he converted only one, leaving the Lakers up by two. And when Dallas subsequently inbounded the ball, Davis got lost defensively, closing way too late to prevent Kleber from sinking a 27-foot jumper for the difference in a 111-110 victory over the Lakers that stunned the sellout crowd at Crypto.com Arena.
The Lakers’ loss in the opener of a five-game homestand wasn’t on Davis alone. They missed five shots after they took a 107-102 lead with 3:16 to play. They converted only 19 of 31 free throws in the game. “We make our free throws, we’re probably not having this conversation,” coach Darvin Ham said.
But they didn’t make those free throws, and Davis didn’t lead them emotionally or by example.
With a chance to gain ground on the teams they’re battling for a spot in the play-in tournament, the Lakers were their worst selves when the situation demanded that they be at their best. After their second straight loss, the difference between them and 11th place in the standings — out of play-in contention — was .001.
“We’re missing our opportunities, for sure. It’s frustrating,” Davis said after a 28-point, 20-rebound performance that was overshadowed by his late misplays.
“We’re still in a position to do something special, with the way we started,” he said, referring to the team’s 2-10 beginning to the season. “We just got to talk about this one [Saturday]figure out a way to get better for Sunday and then win the next four at home before we go to Chicago.”
With LeBron James still recovering from a foot injury, the Lakers needed Davis to lead them Friday. Inspire them. Carry them. He didn’t. There’s no getting around that.
Before Davis said anything else to his teammates after the game, he told them the last play was his fault. He said he’d watch film Saturday and practice free throws. But the chance to move up was lost, leaving the Lakers on the downside of an emotional seesaw and under mounting pressure every game.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing we can do about it, to be honest. It happened,” Davis said of the missed opportunities and the loss. “Our focus is now Sunday, trying to get a win against Orlando. But this one is tough, the way it ended.”
He said he felt great after sitting out Wednesday at Houston for the ever-unpopular load management reasons related to his right foot stress injury. So there were no physical problems he could blame Friday, though he had ice packs taped to both knees and both feet stuck in buckets of ice after the game.
Asked about his positioning when he fouled Kleber on the three-point attempt, he said he tried to contest it from the side. “I’m smart, I never really jump straight in front of people because they jump so far. I still probably clipped him a little bit. I haven’t looked at it,” he said. “But I just tried to really jump on the side of him. I actually think he shot it a little left, honestly, but a couple bad defensive plays by me.”
On his missed free throw with 6.7 seconds left, he said he shot a little to the right. “We would have been up three after that point. Still kind of processing it,” said Davis, who was eight for 11 from the free-throw line. “I mean, you think about it, up three, even if he makes a three, overtime.” He sighed. “I mean, a tough loss,” he added.
On the final play, he acknowledged he didn’t anticipate what Kyrie Irving would do after Irving took a pass from Theo Pinson on the Mavericks’ second attempt to inbound the ball.
“With seven seconds he dribbled almost the whole clock out. Me just reading him, knowing that he was probably going to take the last shot, he goes into his actual shooting motion and just comes down with it, doesn’t shoot it,” Davis said. “So when he goes up, it kind of pulled me in. I was going for the rebound, thinking he was shooting it. Then he made a pass to Kleber. And he makes a shot.”
Wenyen Gabriel said Davis’ willingness to take the blame proved Davis is a worthy leader.
“He’s our best player right now and that just shows that taking accountability as being the best player,” Gabriel said. “That’s something that’s important for the continuity as a team and having trust in each other and obviously we trust AD. That was just a moment. It’s obviously not just on AD, but him taking accountability for that is something that is important instead of pointing fingers in terms of chemistry going forward.
“But we didn’t make a few free throws. Kleber hit a great shot at the end. We got to get out there, but we can’t do anything about that. We’re going to have to rely on AD heavily throughout this final stretch. We’re going to have to really come together at this point. This is not the time for us to be pointing the finger or separating from each other. This is where we’re going to have to dig down deep and it’s going to show the identity of our team.”
The Lakers almost certainly will get into the play-in tournament, in part because all the teams they’re competing with are beating each other most nights and because Portland and New Orleans are fading. They should be better than this, hoping for a place in a contrived, expanded postseason setup. If they’re going to be better, Davis will have to be better, too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.