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So What, Exactly, Was Mason Plumlee Doing on Anthony Davis’s Buzzer-Beater?

Let’s break down the most baffling defensive decision of the NBA playoffs

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Buzzer-beaters are often defined by the players over which they’re made. Michael Jordan made Craig Ehlo and Bryon Russell famous; Kawhi Leonard eliminated the Sixers while being hounded by their two best players; I’m pretty sure every NBA star has hit at least one buzzer-beater over Paul George. But Anthony Davis’s buzzer-beater in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals is notable not because of who was guarding the Lakers big, but because somebody decided to not guard him. Nuggets center Mason Plumlee was subbed into the game specifically to defend Davis on the game’s final possession, but made the inexplicable choice to abandon Davis and point at him instead:

Nikola Jokic managed to contest Davis’s shot, but it seems like that wasn’t his job. He was assigned to guard the inbounds pass, turned around, and saw that the recipient of that pass had been left stunningly wide open. This happened because Plumlee sprinted directly into LeBron James and asked the Denver player defending James, Jerami Grant, to switch onto Davis. This would have been normal behavior if James had attempted to screen Plumlee. But he didn’t. Plumlee voluntarily swerved, effectively screening himself. He didn’t hit a deer that abruptly jumped in front of his car; he steered into the median to take out a doe peacefully eating grass.

Basketball fans who watched this sequence quickly divided into two camps: those who mercilessly mocked Plumlee and those who tried to explain his choice. (It was roughly a 99 percent–to–1 percent split.) The latter group noted that Grant had clearly talked to Plumlee before the play, asking him to help defend James:

Davis said after the game that the play had actually been designed for James. Whatever the Nuggets were doing, it sure seems like they were trying to ensure that somebody stuck with James. But Plumlee made a subtle mistake—even if the switch had been made and Grant had gone to guard Davis, Plumlee wasn’t in position to defend a James cut to the rim. This might have prompted Grant to stick with LeBron instead of listening to Plumlee’s request for a switch.

The Lakers quickly realized that their first option was being double-teamed and that Davis was standing wide-ass open. The rest is history. There was terrible communication by Plumlee and the Nuggets, but at least there’s some sort of explanation. Plumlee is less like a driver swerving into the median to hit a deer and more like Michael Scott listening to the navigation system when it tells him to drive into a lake.

There’s just one problem with absolving Plumlee of blame: This was not an isolated incident. When the Lakers and Nuggets met in August, L.A. won on a last-second 3-pointer by Kyle Kuzma. See if you can find Plumlee in that highlight:

He started the play guarding Davis, but after a botched switch ended up standing in the middle of the paint and pointing at the remarkably open 3-point shooter. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

NBA teams seem to believe that Plumlee is good at defense. He’s been in the NBA for seven seasons, outlasting both of his brothers, despite being barely capable of shooting. (He’s hit two career 3s.) He even represented USA Basketball at the last FIBA World Cup, although that may have had more to do with Coach K’s outsize influence on the USA hoops program than anything else. Nuggets coach Mike Malone thought that Plumlee was so good at defense that he subbed out an excellent defender in Paul Millsap to get Plumlee into the game for this final possession.

But twice now, Plumlee has wound up nowhere near the play as a wide-open Lakers shooter has drilled a 3 to bury the Nuggets. If we’re to believe Plumlee’s pointing fingers, he’s been in two situations in which other players failed to understand their responsibilities and left shooters wide open. But I want you to take it from me, somebody who often ends up pointing at completely uncontested shooters while playing pickup: The more often you point, the more often you’re actually the one to blame.