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    Anthony Davis, Lakers grind out win against Thunder, get to .500
    • March 25, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — For the first time this season, the Lakers have won as many games as they’ve lost.

    That doesn’t seem like much of an achievement – and they’re certainly in the hunt to fulfill greater ambitions. But considering a 2-10 start, a roster that often felt on the road to nowhere, weathering a handful of injuries to key players, the journey simply to mediocrity has been epic.

    And indeed, on Friday night, in a tooth-and-nail game, the win that finally clinched a .500 record (37-37) was epic on a 48-minute scale, featuring a relentlessly aggressive 37-point, 15-rebound performance by Anthony Davis and a whole lot of grit in a 116-111 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder (36-38).

    “Must-win game for us – in the standings, to get to .500,” Davis said. “That’s a tough team on the other side. They play well, they play fast. But we had to come out and get this game.”

    Making a start for D’Angelo Russell (who sat out with right hip soreness), Dennis Schröder (21 points, six assists) had critical baskets in the fourth quarter, none bigger than a midrange jumper to put the Lakers ahead by five with a minute-and-a-half left. Austin Reaves – with 60 points in his previous two games – added 11 points and nine assists.

    Lonnie Walker IV, who had been a healthy scratch in three straight games, exploded off the bench for 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting – his highest point total in a month. Afterward, the entire team gave Walker a salute for stepping up after being out of the rotation entirely.

    “I would say these last few weeks I’ve had my ups and downs, I’ve had my times where I haven’t really been myself, where I’ve been down,” Walker said. “So I’m very blessed and honored to have an opportunity, and play to the best of my capability.

    Even in a crowd of high-stakes games to finish the season, this one stood out: The Lakers moved to eighth place in the Western Conference, gaining some temporary separation from the Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz (who both also lost). Critically, the Lakers secured a 2-1 tiebreaker against OKC, which has been surprisingly competitive given its young core.

    The Thunder’s stars showed why the youth movement has been working: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 27 points, and so did Josh Giddey, who added 18 rebounds and seven assists. Neither was particularly easy to stay in front of and the Thunder as a team made 14 3-pointers to bolster their attack.

    But workmanlike defense helped gut out the win, with Davis patrolling the paint and directing double-teams against the Thunder stars. The Lakers made four free throws in the final minute to seal it.

    Davis’ 15 for 21 performance stood above all others, including getting to the free throw line for 11 attempts. He backed down the overwhelmed OKC front court, forcing double-teams and finding ways to power through anyway

    “(AD) represented all of that today,” coach Darvin Ham said. “Just demanding the ball, playing downhill, being aggressive to the rim, being active defensively, rebounding. He was huge. He was phenomenal.”

    The Lakers had whiffed on two earlier opportunities to improve to .500, something that had stuck with them for the past two weeks.

    Davis clearly meant business at the outset. In the first quarter alone, he was 6 for 7 from the field for 15 points – but it wasn’t the stats as much as the method. He attacked the rim with prejudice with three first-quarter dunks. On one drive, Davis flew in for a jam over Giddey, who watched with futile indifference as he stepped out of Davis’ shadow.

    But the Lakers found additional offensive firepower, too. Malik Beasley and Walker rained down from behind the arc coming off the bench, helping the Laker reserves outpace their Thunder counterparts 33-15 in the first half alone. Their 41 points to start were the most the team has scored in a first quarter this season.

    Against Gilgeous-Alexander, the Lakers deployed Jarred Vanderbilt, whose length flustered the All-Star guard early, getting him to miss five of his first eight attempts. But Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder found rhythm by getting to the free-throw line (17 for 19) and located their 3-point strokes (8 for 14 in the first half).

    By the second half, both Thunder playmakers were fully primed, and the Lakers were battling to hold them off. But unfortunate decision-making led to a 7-0 OKC run at the end of the third quarter: With 41 seconds left, the Lakers missed a pair of shots, and the Thunder scored after both, closing to within one point.

    Schröder came out punching to start the fourth, with three straight baskets and seven points. But the Lakers, who scored just 19 points in the third, still struggled against the Thunder’s defense and turned it over seven times in the second half. After threatening for so much of the game, OKC finally tied it on a Gilgeous-Alexander midrange jumper with 5:25 remaining.

    But the Lakers found a way to win their third straight game, and the home crowd seems to recognize that the character of the team has shifted, too. In the third quarter, Schröder managed to wrangle not one, but two loose balls within a 10-second span, collapsing with apparent exhaustion when he finally drew a foul on Gilgeous-Alexander to uproarious applause.

    With the team finally on the cusp of a winning record, and the energy in the fanbase rising, Schröder said the Lakers are responding to that swelling tide.

    “Everyone’s loud,” he said. “I’ve seen the bench and everybody’s just standing up and its hyped. That’s all I’m saying, being a team, everyone just being happy for each other, that’s what we need. If we’re doing that, we’re at our best and can accomplish a lot with that if we keep doing that going forward.”

    ​ Orange County Register