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Anthony Davis Just Learned a Painful Playoff Lesson

The Heat had no answer for Davis in their first two games against the Lakers, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t show up for Game 3. Welcome to the Finals, AD.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James tried to warn Anthony Davis. He scolded his costar and teammates for celebrating and saying the series was over in the second half of the Lakers’ blowout win over the Heat in Game 1. LeBron, playing in his 10th NBA Finals, knew winning a title wouldn’t be that easy.

That’s what he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports after the game: “The best teacher in life is experience. I’ve experienced moments in my career where you have all the momentum in the world and you feel like you had the game under control, and one play here or there could change the course of a series or change the course of a game. One in particular that always rings home is Game 2 of the 2011 Finals in Miami vs. Dallas. [Dwyane Wade] hits a 3 right by their bench. I believe it puts us up either 13 or 17. From that moment on, Dallas went on a hell of a run and finished it off with a Dirk Nowitzki left-hand layup to steal that game. That shit burns me to this day. I always talk about the best teacher in life is experience, and I’ve experienced a lot. That’s what prompts me to be who I am today, is being able to have those experiences.”

His warning didn’t seem like a big deal after the Lakers’ dominant win in Game 2. But it hits a little differently after AD’s miserable performance in Sunday’s Game 3 loss. He came out flat, picked up two quick fouls, and never found his rhythm. Davis finished with 15 points and four fouls in 32 minutes, while handing out three assists and five turnovers. He went from being the best player on the floor in the first two games to a nonfactor. Davis took his foot off the gas and accidentally breathed new life into the series, allowing the Heat to cut the Lakers’ lead to 2-1.

It didn’t take long to see that Davis wasn’t fully engaged. Jimmy Butler beat Danny Green on a switch in one of the first possessions of the game, and Davis was supposed to be the help-side defender at the rim. But he was a step slow, allowing Butler to dunk on him:

In Game 2, the Heat had no answer for Davis without Bam Adebayo, who has missed the past two games with a shoulder injury. They tried Jae Crowder in Game 1, which was a disaster, and played zone in Game 2, which the Lakers picked apart. The only thing left to do was play like the more desperate team. Miami got into his chest, swarmed him with multiple defenders, and fell backward anytime he created contact. That’s how he picked up three of his four fouls in Game 3:

Davis has to know that he’s a target in those situations. The Heat needed to get him off his game, and gambled that they would get some friendly whistles down 0-2. The good news for the Lakers is that type of gamesmanship is probably not sustainable. Just as it’s in the NBA’s best interest to have a long series, it’s also in its best interest to have the stars decide the outcome.

The bigger issue was AD’s struggles against more aggressive double-teams. He had three turnovers in the first quarter, all on plays where he didn’t have control of the ball, wasn’t strong with it, or didn’t know where his shooters were:

Playmaking is the weakest link in his game. He’s improved over the course of the season, but is still far more comfortable scoring than passing. The Heat should test that more often.

Frank Vogel can make it easier for his star big man by downsizing like he did in their second-round series against the Rockets. Davis goes from a net rating of minus-14.8 in 47 minutes with Dwight Howard in the Finals to plus-11.0 in 64 minutes without him. The switch would open up the lane and make it easier for Davis to read the defense while also taking out the team’s worst perimeter defender. There’s no one for Howard to guard when the Heat play two stretch 5s (Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk) in place of Bam.

Getting more from Davis is the Lakers’ quickest path to winning the series. He’s their best defender against Butler, who went off for 40 points on 14-of-20 shooting and 13 assists in Game 3. LeBron, who guarded him for most of the game on Sunday, isn’t the same defender that he was earlier in his career. Davis has a much better combination of length and athleticism, and can smother Butler off the dribble in a way that LeBron no longer can:

The Lakers have answers for everything the Heat did in Game 3. The problem is that Miami could have adjustments of its own in Game 4, especially if Bam and Goran Dragic can return. Bam is the big wild card. The Heat avoided using him on Davis in Game 1. There’s no guarantee that he could win that matchup even if he were fully healthy. But it would change the course of the series if he did.

The frustrating part for Los Angeles is that his potential return shouldn’t matter. Bam’s missing Game 3 should have been enough to effectively end the series. But Davis coming out flat gave Miami a chance to stay alive.

The same thing happened to LeBron when he was playing for the Heat in 2011. Miami was up 2-1 on Dallas heading into Game 4 when an adjustment from Rick Carlisle (putting J.J. Barea in the starting lineup) changed the dynamic of the series. It would have been harder for Barea to turn the tide if Miami had taken care of business in Game 2 and been up 3-0. Unfinished business opens the door for a seemingly overmatched opponent to make the right adjustment and come back.

LeBron learned from that defeat. He doesn’t take his opponents lightly anymore and tries to put them away as soon as possible. It’s one reason he’s 27-4 in playoff series since losing to Dallas. But it took heartbreak for him to internalize that lesson. There is no teacher like experience. Davis, who has played in more playoff games this year than his first seven seasons combined, just got the same education. How costly it will be remains to be seen.