Lakers’ Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard scuffle on bench during ugly loss to Suns

LOS ANGELES — A frustrating opening week filled with turnovers, missed defensive assignments and chemistry questions boiled over for the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday when Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard had to be separated during a bench altercation.

The exchange, which occurred in the second quarter following a pick-and-roll defense coverage breakdown, began when Davis followed Howard toward the bench and stood over the veteran center as he took a seat during a timeout. Howard then stood up to continue the conversation before Davis pushed Howard’s forearms, causing Howard to stumble back toward the row of seats. Multiple teammates then intervened to separate the two players, but Davis pointed at Howard before backing off.

The Lakers, who entered the season as favorites to win the Western Conference, fell to 0-2 after a 115-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center. The argument between Davis and Howard took place as Phoenix seized control of the contest by winning the second quarter, 34-18.

“When you’re getting your a-- kicked, sometimes those conversations get heated,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “Those guys love each other. They talked it out. That’s going to happen from time to time. I’d rather our guys care than not care.”

While the Lakers fell behind by as many as 32 points in the second half, there didn’t appear to be any lingering animosity between Davis and Howard, who were teammates on the Lakers’ 2020 title team. Both players remained in the court area for the duration of the game, and they clapped hands during one third-quarter timeout. Howard cheered on his teammates from the bench during the third quarter but didn’t reenter the game in the second half.

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Davis and Howard played down their argument during their postgame news conferences.

“Two guys, very competitive, just want to win games,” Davis said. “It’s over with. Y’all can look at it any way y’all want to look at it. That’s on y’all. … I was saying one thing and he was saying another on the scheme. Then one thing led to another. We talked about it and left it in the locker room at halftime.”

Howard repeatedly insisted that the issue was “squashed” and added that he “didn’t say anything negative” to Davis during their conversation.

“We’re grown men,” Howard said. “Things happen. There’s no issue between me and him. That’s my brother. That’s my teammate. … We were upset about a play. We both got into our feelings. It happens. I don’t want anybody to make this an issue between me and AD.”

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Vogel said that Howard remained on the bench during the second half for strategic, rather than disciplinary, reasons.

“We wanted to change the game,” he said. “We were down big. We wanted to look at a smaller lineup.”

The brief, but fiery, bench exchange heightened questions about the Lakers’ ability to bring together their collection of stars and big personalities following an offseason overhaul that included a blockbuster trade for Russell Westbrook. In a season-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, Los Angeles struggled to integrate Westbrook into its offense and squandered quality performances by LeBron James and Davis. Instead of bouncing back, the Lakers looked worse against the Suns, who eliminated them in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

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“The Lakers have a team issue and basketball issue,” Lakers legend Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter after Friday’s loss. “Dwight Howard and AD got into a physical altercation on the bench. In my 42 years of being associated with the Lakers organization, I’ve never seen something like that.”

Davis, 28, has assumed a leadership role since his 2019 arrival to the Lakers, anchoring a defense that has ranked in the top-three in each of the past two seasons. The eight-time all-star finished with 22 points on 6-for-18 shooting and 14 rebounds in 38 minutes, and he received a technical foul for his role in an on-court argument with Suns center Deandre Ayton during the fourth quarter.

James acknowledged that the Lakers must do a better job of maintaining their composure when they disagree with the officiating, but he disputed the notion that the loss to the Suns was evidence of wider internal issues.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of frustration,” James said. “I really don’t. There’s moments of frustration because you want to be better. Better communication. You don’t want to turn the ball over. You don’t want to give up a layup or miss an assignment. That can get overblown when you lose a game, have some [technical fouls] here and you see some altercations. We’re competitors. If you don’t get mad at certain things out on the floor, that you think you should have done better, what are we here for? We like that as a ballclub. We like the adversity.”

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The 35-year-old Howard signed with the Lakers on a one-year, $2.6 million veteran’s minimum contract during the offseason after spending last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year found success as a role player and agitator with the Lakers two seasons ago, providing valuable defensive contributions during the 2020 Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to end up being the team we’re supposed to be,” Howard said. “But you’ve got to crawl before you walk. … We’re not going to separate. We’re not going to allow anybody to separate us.”