Until Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers’ title defense could be summed up in two words: cruise control.

While LeBron James and company haven’t quite risen to superteam heights, they have skated to a 21-7 record with precious little drama and few surprises. The Lakers have largely avoided major health protocol absences; James has established himself as an early MVP candidate; Anthony Davis has captained the NBA’s top-ranked defense; and their offseason additions have jelled nicely, giving Coach Frank Vogel an impressively deep bench.

Their biggest weakness — as evidenced by three straight overtime wins against sub-.500 teams last week — has been letting less-talented opponents hang around before finally putting them away. But with a 12-3 record on the road and an 11-3 record in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, only mild concern was warranted. If every team enjoyed perfect health, the Lakers had earned the right to be viewed as 2021′s clear championship favorites.

The “if” in that statement took on greater meaning Sunday when Davis departed with a right Achilles’ tendon strain after playing just 14 minutes during a 122-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets. Davis, who missed two games last week with Achilles’ soreness, underwent an MRI exam Monday that confirmed there was no Achilles’ rupture. Davis and the Lakers downplayed the severity of the injury Sunday, but he has been ruled out for Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves as he undergoes further tests. Of course, the Lakers will proceed with the utmost caution given Davis’s importance to their title chase and long-term plans. ESPN.com reported Monday that Davis could miss at least the next two weeks and that he might not return before the all-star break, which begins March 5.

“You don’t want to mess around with this type of injury,” Davis said Sunday.

Davis’s injury represents this season’s first real test for the Lakers, who have weaponized his versatility and length to great effect on the defensive end since his 2019 arrival. During the 2020 title run, Davis shifted to center at key moments to anchor smaller lineups that blitzed opponents off the court. Davis has eased into this season after the short turnaround, but he has been a vocal leader organizing his new teammates, and he frustrated Nikola Jokic during the Lakers’ first Western Conference finals rematch with the Nuggets on Feb. 4.

The Lakers will miss Davis because he brilliantly covers up the flaws of his frontcourt partners. When veteran center Marc Gasol struggles to keep up with quicker matchups, Davis can step in and shut things down. Undersized backup center Montrezl Harrell is susceptible to off-the-dribble attacks and vertical challenges, whereas Davis’s presence generally establishes a no-fly zone around the basket. Kyle Kuzma has defended with better focus and energy this season, but he isn’t an interior presence. James has displayed far better night-to-night effort on defense in Los Angeles than he did during his second stint in Cleveland, but it would be a mistake to add more to his plate.

Indeed, the 36-year-old James was already gunning for his fifth MVP, averaging a team-high 34.6 minutes per game without taking off a night yet this season. Vogel must resist the temptation to chase wins in the short term, even though a three-team race for the West’s top seed is developing with the Utah Jazz, Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Talent and chemistry were key factors to the Lakers’ bubble title, but so was availability; seven key rotation players — including James, Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — appeared in all 21 playoff games.

“All I care about is health,” James said. “I want [Davis] to be healthy. Our team needs him to be healthy. … We’re not asking anybody to pick up what A.D. does. You can’t do that. It’s impossible. He’s a special player and a special talent for a reason.”

Offensively, greater opportunities should open up for Kuzma, Harrell and guards Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker. Vogel said Sunday that he hoped that the Lakers’ perimeter attack, which ranks 26th in three-pointers per game and 16th in three-point percentage, will pick up.

“If [Davis] is going to miss time, which we don’t know yet, we’ve got plenty of firepower to win games,” Vogel said. “We have great depth. We remain confident. We are struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter for a couple weeks now. You just stay the course, continue to focus on execution and generating quality shots and have our guys continue to honor their work. We want to continue to emphasize who we’ve been: attack the paint.”

The Jazz’s remarkable 22-5 start, which includes 18 wins in its past 19 games, ups the stakes. The Lakers would much rather face either the Jazz or the Clippers in the West finals rather than needing to go through both of them, given that there is a noticeable gap between the West’s top three teams and the rest of the pack. A hypothetical title path that included the Clippers in the second round, the Jazz in the West finals and the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals would be significantly more difficult than the Lakers’ 16-5 playoff run through the bubble.

It’s too early to panic about playoff seeds with three months remaining in the regular season, but the sight of Davis limping to the locker room qualified as a genuine shock to the Lakers’ system. For as long as Davis is out, the time for toying around is over.