This is what the margins look like, how hard it’ll be for the Lakers to win without their best at their best.
The Lakers had reignited hope in their season over the previous 10 games, refashioning themselves as an Anthony Davis-led juggernaut that warmed up against lesser teams like the San Antonio Spurs before formalizing their rise with wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards at the start of their six-game trip.
But Tuesday night in Cleveland, the plans had to change, and they had to change on the fly. Davis, maybe the best player in the NBA over the last three weeks, had to leave the floor with flu-like symptoms.
He didn’t return.
“Next man up … but that’s a tall task — figuratively and literally,” said LeBron James, who had 21 points and 17 rebounds.
That left James and Russell Westbrook to figure out things, but the undermanned Lakers couldn’t find enough consistent offense and were on a constant search for answers on defense, losing to the Cavaliers, 116-102.
“It was a tough challenge, but our guys competed,” coach Darvin Ham said. “Disappointed, but I’m not upset.”
James, who mostly has dominated his former team, lost twice to the Cavaliers this season, dropping his record against them to 17-3.
“He really wants to put on a show for his hometown crowd. Or ... he really doesn’t like [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert,” Ham joked before the game.
James was visibly emotional when highlights of his chase-down block in the 2016 NBA Finals brought the crowd to its feet for a massive ovation that James later said caught him off guard.
He raised his hands, acknowledging the fans, before blowing a kiss to the crowd that watched him for 11 of his 20 seasons and celebrated the city’s first championship since 1964.
Later in the fourth quarter, fans inside his former home arena chanted “M-V-P” — only this time it was for Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points, one of the biggest offseason acquisitions helping Cleveland improve to an NBA-best 11-1 at home. Center Jarrett Allen made his first 10 shots on the way to 24 points and 11 rebounds, and guard Darius Garland had 21 points and 11 assists for the Cavaliers, who outscored the Lakers 31-19 in the fourth quarter to pull away.
“Mitchell, he’s just Mitchell,” James said of the newest Cavaliers star. “I mean, he did a great job of penetrating our gaps and making some tough shots all night and got into a real good comfort. But he’s a special kid.”
Ham said Davis, who was named Western Conference player of the week Monday, started feeling sick earlier in the day and progressively got worse. Davis’ temperature went above “101 and some change,” Ham said, but Davis wanted to play. He left the game after eight minutes with just one point.
“He just felt too weak, just too drained — dehydrated a little bit,” Ham said.
His status for Wednesday’s game in Toronto is undetermined.
Without Davis on the inside, the Lakers could’ve used some firepower from the outside. They got almost none.
The Lakers made only six of 36 three-point shots, their worst effort of the season. They’re just 2-7 when held below 30% on threes. They also turned the ball over 16 times to only eight for the Cavaliers.
“We just didn’t make enough shots and had untimely turnovers,” Ham said. “To me, that’s what the game came down to pretty much.”
Cleveland didn’t shoot well from deep either, allowing the Lakers to keep the game close until the Cavaliers sprinted through the final horn.
In addition to Davis’ illness, the Lakers were without backup big man Wenyen Gabriel, who suffered a left shoulder sprain going for a rebound against the Wizards on Sunday. He’s scheduled to be evaluated again in one week, and Ham is optimistic Gabriel won’t be out much longer.
“It’s next man up. That’s what a team is for,” James said. “Obviously you can’t replace AD so everyone has to do a little bit more.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.