Anthony Davis finally has his playoff moment. The Lakers big man has always had the potential to be the face of the NBA. His talent is undeniable. Not many players his size (6-foot-10 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) have ever had the ability to move, shoot, and dribble like him. But Davis only made the playoffs twice in his first seven seasons with the Pelicans. And he never did anything like this:
AD’s “moment” was more than just the last shot. It was the whole second half. Davis put Los Angeles on his back down the stretch of a tight 105-103 victory against Denver in Game 2 of the West finals. He scored 22 points in the second half on 8-of-14 shooting when no one else on the Lakers could get anything going. Davis had L.A.’s last 10 points, and was its only player to score in the last five minutes.
It was the reverse of the first quarter, when LeBron James opened the game with the Lakers’ first 12 points. The Nuggets changed up their defensive strategy at halftime after he hit 20, playing bigger and more versatile defenders who could switch screens that LeBron was involved in. He then lost confidence in his jumper, and couldn’t finish at the rim against a defense packing the paint to stop him.
That’s when Davis took over. Switching screens against him plays to his strengths. Even the best defenders at his position can barely slow him down. Someone without the size or speed to match up with him has no chance.
The biggest problem for the Los Angeles offense in the fourth quarter was that Davis wasn’t getting the ball enough. There were too many possessions where LeBron hunted for mismatches that didn’t go anywhere. He can’t create the same types of offensive advantages at this stage of his career that Davis can.
The only player in the NBA who can score as easily as AD is a healthy Kevin Durant. It looks effortless once he gets going:
The problem with a player who makes everything look effortless is that more is always expected. It’s the Tracy McGrady conundrum.
Just listen to AD’s postgame interview with the Inside the NBA crew. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith basically staged an intervention with him. Each asked the same question a different way.
Barkley: “You have an advantage every single night you step on the floor. But some nights you don’t seem aggressive. What is it about you that some nights you’re just not aggressive?”
O’Neal: “First game you had 37. This one you had 31. Is your mindset before you go into a series that I need to average 30 to 35 for us to be successful?”
Smith: “I don’t know if this advice, a comment, or a question. It seems like when you watch that when Dwight comes in or JaVale is at the 5 and you’re at the 4, you seem very offensively aggressive. But your advantage a lot of times is even at the 5. At the 5 there is no answer for you, even though that might not be your natural position. What do you feel more comfortable, playing on the perimeter, back to the basket, handling the ball?”
The odd part about their questions is that Davis is already averaging 28.7 points on 57.3 percent shooting, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game in the playoffs. Should he really be dominating more? Only three players in NBA history have averaged 27, 10, and 3 on 56 percent shooting in a postseason—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barkley, and O’Neal.
But it’s easy to see what the latter two are talking about when you break down the film. Take this possession from Game 2 in crunch time:
Davis sets a screen for LeBron, and then pops out to the 3-point line. LeBron gets doubled and kicks the ball back to Davis. Jamal Murray closes out to him and Davis swings the ball to Rajon Rondo in the corner. Keeping the ball moving might be the right basketball play in a vacuum. But it’s not the right play for Davis. He can blow by Murray and attack Nikola Jokic at the rim. If the defense collapses on him at that point, then he can kick it out to Rondo for a wide-open 3, instead of the contested one that he ended up missing.
In the TNT interview Sunday, Davis said that LeBron always tells him to stop making the “right” play and be aggressive instead. And that Rondo reminds him before every game that he should go for 50 points.
It’s not that Davis shouldn’t be passing to his teammates. Using him more as a playmaker than a finisher is the next step in the evolution of the Lakers. It’s the type of passes that he makes that need to be changed. He shouldn’t be moving the ball just to move it. That’s Alex Caruso’s job. Davis should be attacking the rim and then finding his teammates for open 3s. He should be playing like every other first option in the NBA. This is the kind of shot that he creates when he’s aggressive:
Davis can’t fall in love with his jumper against the Nuggets, either. They don’t have anyone who can stay in front of him. Why not punish them every time down the court? There is no reason for him to settle for a fadeaway, especially against Jokic. These are bailout shots even if they go in:
Davis is shooting 82 percent within 3 feet of the rim in the playoffs, and he’s shooting 77.2 percent from the free throw line on 9.5 attempts per game. He should be taking as many shots at the rim as possible. It’s not that he shouldn’t ever take jumpers. But there’s a big difference between taking a stepback because the defender is pressing up on you, and getting an open pull-up because the defender is falling back to keep you from the rim. Davis will always get a better shot when he goes into attack mode. That’s the whole point of having his combination of size, athleticism, and scoring ability—no one can keep up.
Superstars should be aggressive. There was a telling sequence in Game 7 of the first-round series between the Thunder and Rockets. Luguentz Dort was guarding Russell Westbrook, and Westbrook blew right by him to score at the rim. ESPN’s Mark Jackson summed it up: “He’s telling Dort that I’m not playing with you. I’m going straight at you. We’re not dancing. I’m putting my head down and attacking.”
Westbrook, to be sure, is usually too aggressive for his own good. But he’s also not a 7-footer with AD’s touch. When Davis puts his head down the results can be devastating. He needs that same mentality when he’s going up against a defender who can’t guard him—which is basically every player in the league.
There are few teams less equipped to handle Davis than the Nuggets. Jokic and Paul Millsap don’t have a prayer against him. Davis is averaging 34.0 points on 52.3 percent shooting in only 36.0 minutes per game in the first two games of the series. The only player on Denver’s roster who can run and jump with Davis is Jerami Grant, who has been guarding LeBron. Denver would be in real trouble if Davis forces Grant to guard him.
The Nuggets are doing to him what he should be doing to them. One of the keys to their comeback in Game 2 was that Jokic and Murray stopped trying to dance with Davis. They started going right at him and finishing through him:
Davis is a great individual defender who finished second in this year’s Defensive Player of the Year voting. But that doesn’t mean Denver’s stars should change what they do best against him. The smartest way to score on a shot blocker is to get into his chest and neutralize his length.
The game plan against Davis has always been to get physical, crowd him, and hope that he takes himself out of the game by putting up jumpers. That’s what Houston tried in the second round with P.J. Tucker. It worked well in Game 1, with AD becoming a meme for his difficulty overpowering the smaller opponent. He scored 25 points in the Lakers loss, but only had one assist.
The series-altering adjustment that Los Angeles made in Game 2 was downsizing and moving Davis to center, which gave him more room to attack. Houston never figured out a counter, with Davis averaging 29.7 points and five assists over the next three games. He’s a much more dynamic offensive player at the 5. His true shooting percentage in the playoffs with McGee (56.7) and Howard (56.7) on the floor isn’t in the same ballpark as what it is without them (71.5). The two big men are a pair of governors on the Lakers’ engine. Take them off and the team starts flying.
That’s what Smith was getting at when he asked Davis about playing his “natural position.” People have been questioning his reluctance to play center his entire career. The comparison with players like Tucker, who embraced the demands of the position despite being only 6-foot-5, only makes AD’s preference look worse. The subtext of James Harden’s comments after the Rockets upset the Lakers in Game 1 last round—“I don’t care if you’re 7-feet. If you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter.”—was fairly obvious.
Playing Davis at center was easy against the Rockets. Guarding Jokic, who is averaging 25.4 points and 5.9 assists per game in the playoffs, is a completely different challenge. Davis can’t shut him down. The key is making him work without fouling and then getting those points back on the other side of the ball.
Davis has an easier time scoring on Jokic than Jokic has scoring on him. They are the two best centers in the league. Both are great offensive players. But only Davis is a great defensive one.
Los Angeles needs him to win that matchup. Denver isn’t going away down 0-2. It has already come back from two 3-1 deficits in the playoffs. And the team figured a few things out in its second-half comeback in Game 2. The Lakers were lucky to win. They should treat it like a loss and come back with some adjustments in Game 3. There’s plenty of room for them to get better. McGee has a net rating of minus-27.7 in 22 minutes in the series. He’s not a good matchup for Jokic. The last thing the Lakers should want is to give their opponent’s best player any more confidence.
LeBron understands that. That’s why he came out extra aggressive at the start of Game 2. He has done this enough times to know the importance of putting away a team when you have the chance.
This is a different role for the 35-year-old LeBron. Davis coming to Los Angeles is like when he went to Miami. He’s the Dwyane Wade figure now. LeBron is the mentor with championship experience who has to show the ropes to the young up-and-coming superstar.
The knock on Davis before he came to Los Angeles was that he couldn’t handle the pressure of leading an organization. There was some truth to it. Few young stars come into the league ready to do that. Even Tim Duncan leaned on David Robinson in his first few seasons in San Antonio. Davis is getting invaluable experience seeing how LeBron carries himself on a daily basis, how he deals with his teammates, and how he handles the playoff gauntlet. It’s the same lessons that LeBron learned from Wade and Pat Riley in Miami.
Davis hasn’t faced much pressure in the playoffs. But that will change, whether it’s against Denver, or in an NBA Finals matchup with Miami or Boston. The Lakers are expected to win, especially with the Clippers and Bucks losing. The other teams are playing with house money.
Gilbert Arenas said it best on his No Chill podcast before the season: “You have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor at 6′10″, 6′11″. I don’t know what everyone else is pretending they are looking at, but I don’t know who’s actually going to stop them.”
The Lakers should win. But plenty of teams in NBA history should have won but haven’t. LeBron has been on several of them.
The difference this time is that LeBron has never played with anyone like Davis. That’s not a knock on Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, or Kevin Love. There are only a handful of players in NBA history as talented as Davis. He’s only 27. He still hasn’t reached his ceiling. He’s still figuring out exactly how good he can be.
It’s cliché to compare an NBA player ascending in the playoffs to Keanu Reeves at the end of The Matrix. But consider an earlier scene in the movie, when Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus explains to Neo that he will be able to defeat seemingly invincible bad guys.
Neo looks at him in amazement: “What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?”
Morpheus shakes his head: “No. What I’m telling you is that when you are ready, you won’t have to.”
That’s what so many older guys have been telling Davis, whether it’s LeBron and Rondo in practice, or Barkley, O’Neal, and Smith on television. Davis has always been able to knock down tough jumpers. He will become the best player in the NBA when he realizes that he doesn’t have to.