Anthony Davis was plugging in his personal cheat code. His gravity pulled the crowd into a wave of cheers that grew louder with every possession. As Davis took over in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game between the Grizzlies and Lakers, he kept extending L.A.’s lead on his own. The Staples Center cheers crescendoed and became deafening as the fans realized what they were seeing. If you glance at the play-by-play log, it looks like a glitch. Davis kept driving at the basket, and the speed bumps in his way, all wearing Memphis Grizzlies colors, couldn’t do anything but foul him. So, Davis kept shooting and making free throws, his stat line grew supersized, and the crowd responded with full-throated MVP chants that weren’t just gratuitous.
The game needed saving. It was a matchup thick with fouls and lacking in flow. In the past, in games like this—the Grizzlies were behind by only two points at halftime—we’re used to seeing LeBron James flip a switch and throttle his weaker opponent. But LeBron didn’t come to the rescue against the Grizzlies. Instead, Davis played the part of the hero in the 120-91 win.
Davis played only 31 minutes and took just 17 shots from the field, but he ended up with a double-double on steroids: 40 points and 20 rebounds. He made a Lakers-record 26 free throws on 27 attempts—including going 18-for-18 in the third quarter alone. Per Elias, it was the first 40-20 game in 31 minutes or less since the 1954-55 season. And it was exactly the kind of performance that gives credence to the belief that Davis can be, and maybe is, the best player in the league.
It’s only the fourth game of the season and the Lakers are already running out of adjectives to describe Davis’s game. Danny Green called it “unbelievable.” Avery Bradley said it was “incredible.” LeBron described it as “wonderful.” And Dwight Howard, who was so impressed by Davis’s unstoppable performance that he got up and urged the crowd to cheer more during the absurd third-quarter run, realized mid-interview that Davis’s free throws had broken the Lakers franchise record he’d set in 2012.
“Just how fast it happened, and how quickly and how easy he made it look,” Green said. “He did it without being hot, he didn’t shoot any 3s.”
At 34 and in his 17th season, LeBron may have to reserve this type of effort for the playoffs, but the 26-year-old Davis can go all out on a weeknight in October against an opponent that isn’t expected to make the playoffs.
On nights like these, the only thing that can stop Davis is himself. And his own body nearly did Tuesday. After reportedly jamming his right shoulder during Sunday night’s game against the Hornets, he tested the shoulder in pregame warm-ups before it was confirmed that he would play. Then, in the first half, he went back to the locker room to get his shoulder retaped. This sequence of events is one that’s all too familiar to those who watched Davis in New Orleans—he gets banged up often, retreats to the locker room for a second, and then returns to the game. Still, when he did that Tuesday night, no one expected what would come next.
“Dude’s just a monster, man,” Alex Caruso told me postgame. “If someone is not aware of him at all times, on the ball, off the ball, on defense ... .” He didn’t say anything else because, well, we had both seen what had just happened. “People forgot how good he is.”
Davis, as the Lakers’ primary option, finally seems to be primed for an MVP-like season. In the team’s three wins this season, he has put up impressive stats of all kinds. Against the Jazz, he blocked five shots and stifled Rudy Gobert. Against the Hornets, he had 29 points, three blocks, and 14 boards. Tuesday was one of what the Lakers hope will be many dynamite games in which he does a little bit of everything.
It’s also what LeBron has said he wants; going back to the offseason, he’d been vocal about wanting to play through Davis on both ends, and the trouncing of the Grizzlies felt like the idealized version of that. LeBron is the face of the Lakers; Davis is ready to be the backbone. “He was wonderful tonight, spectacular in all facets,” LeBron said. “I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface yet.”
What’s striking is that LeBron seems to, for now, be content with such a reality. Postgame, he talked tacos and bounced his head to “Paid in Full” by Eric B. & Rakim and rapped along to the lyrics of the duo’s “I Ain’t No Joke” after his interview. “I think it’s going to be good for him,” Caruso said of LeBron’s load being lessened by Davis. “Because he’s a little fresher at the end of the game because he’s not driving in and taking hits for 48 minutes.”
But Davis can’t be taking too many hits, either. Green said that the team had talked about how often Davis falls and discussed how to tuck and roll and fall gracefully. Davis at the free throw line may be the lasting image of his historic performance, but there was another telling image, too. For the entire fourth quarter, Davis sat on the bench on top of the kind of booster seat that LeBron typically uses—which makes him look taller than the rest of the players on the bench—icing his right shoulder in a makeshift sling. He wasn’t coming back into the blowout and he didn’t need to. What was happening on the court was no longer important, which is how LeBron ended up leading the entire crowd in an impromptu chant of “Taco Tuesday.” It was a playful end to an ideal night for the Lakers. LeBron was providing the entertainment; Davis had already taken care of the basketball.