Anthony Davis had already done enough. He put up 18 points in eight minutes in the second quarter, electrified the Staples Center crowd on a sleepy Tuesday night, made his teammates “ooh” and “ahh,” and rendered everyone on the Sixers—from Al Horford to anyone else they put in his way—helpless. But even though the Lakers controlled the game, it wasn’t done, so Davis wasn’t finished either. With 10:27 left in the third quarter and the Lakers up 73-54, he tipped a pass and dove for the resulting loose ball. A row of empty seats stood in his way, but they may as well have been invisible. Davis barreled over them, saving the ball in the process, and on the other end of the floor, JaVale McGee wrapped up the play with a dunk.
“I don’t need my big fella jumping over seats,” LeBron James said after the 120-107 win against the Sixers. “He continues to get plays like that … just some really good plays and it starts with AD.”
That particular play was made possible by Davis’s effort, and on Tuesday—just like most other nights—Davis’s defense lit a fire under the Lakers. After missing five of his first eight shots in the first quarter, Davis stole a Tobias Harris pass with 6:35 left in the second, got fouled, and then made two free throws. That sequence may as well have been the firing of a starting gun at a track and field meet. In the final six minutes of the quarter, Davis turned the court into his personal playground: He dunked, made 3s, got to the line, finished alley-oops, and grabbed another steal that led to a massive fast-break dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Davis would go on to finish the night with 37 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, four steals, and two blocks—a performance that displayed his ability to transform into one of the best two-way players in the NBA at a moment’s notice.
“AD is top five,” Jared Dudley said postgame. “Defensively, he’ll always be phenomenal, but he’ll have a game like this every five to six games. … He’ll always remind you.”
It seems counterintuitive that anyone around the league should need a reminder. Davis is having an unimpeachable season and averaging 26.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals per game with a 54.5 effective field goal percentage. But the truth is there have been shinier objects to marvel at this season, and newer unicorns to catalogue.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has put together an impeccable encore MVP campaign in Milwaukee that commands both attention and leaguewide admiration. Zion Williamson, meanwhile, has stepped onto the scene like an exclamation point and captured our collective gaze with his magnetic style of play. Even LeBron has used this season to let us all know he is as ageless as they come, inserting himself into the MVP discussion (even if Giannis seems like the runaway winner) by force of will. It’s wrong to say Davis is forgotten or ignored, especially given that he now plays in one of the biggest markets in the league. But the story lines and narratives of the season seem to elude him.
“I think this is the first time he’s had this kind of situation, he knows the pieces are around him to complement him and it’s his job to go get it,” Dudley said. “We want him to keep expanding his game.”
It’s frightening to think about the fact that Davis has been in the league for eight seasons and is somehow still improving. To watch him on nights like Tuesday is to witness a basketball chameleon. Davis toggles from defense to offense at a high level, and from ball handler to shooter to big man to dunker to anything the game demands—and he does it all so smoothly that he makes it seem normal to see a 7-footer break a defender’s ankles or pull up for a 3 with the confidence of Ray Allen.
That 3-point shot, and his growing confidence in it, is adding another level to Davis’s game. “I’ve worked on it before every game and every day before practice over the last probably month and a half,” he said Tuesday. And that practice was on full display against the Sixers.
Davis’s fourth 3 of the night—which matched his season high—came with just over three minutes left in the game and all but daggered a depleted Philly team with plenty of fight, but zero answers for Davis.
“He scores in a variety of ways. He’s a threat in a variety of ways,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We are continuing to wind him up from the 3-point line, to be aggressive in those situations. … That’s why we shoot 3s with Anthony, just to carry that threat, and then he brings gravity to everyone else attacking the paint.”
With Davis and LeBron finding their ultimate groove, the rhetoric around the Lakers is shifting. Now that it’s clear this is the best team in the West—one that’s not only hoping to win a title, but can also burn through the regular season—the players are getting asked about how they can turn this success into momentum for the playoffs. How do they avoid burnout? Do they go for the most wins possible, or do they rest up? When do they flip the switch? Is there a flip to switch at all?
Games like Tuesday’s and stretches like the one Davis had in the fourth quarter are reminders that the Lakers’ ceiling is not tied to what LeBron can or can’t do, but rather what Davis can become. If LeBron is the team’s anchor, holding them steady through struggles and ensuring they don’t stray too far off course, then Davis is the motor that can propel the Lakers to their ultimate goal. It’s still LeBron’s team, full stop, but at age 35, he seems to have no problem renting it out to Davis on a night-to-night basis.
This collaboration changes a bit come playoff time, though. There, LeBron is the elder statesman who has traversed the path time and time again. Davis is the inexperienced pupil stepping onto the biggest stage. “People haven’t seen AD really do it in the playoffs. That’s where Kawhi got all the hype because he did it in the playoffs,” Dudley said. “I think for him to get to the mark where he wants to, he has to do it in the playoffs.”
As Dudley said this, a towel-wrapped Davis entered the locker room. He tossed Dudley a quizzical look, then threw him a knowing smile as he walked by. “What you talking about?”
Dudley shot back. “We’re talking about you!”
Davis scoffed, laughed, and turned toward LeBron, who was playing Lil Baby’s “Gang Signs” and singing along for the whole locker room to hear. This was a snapshot of the post-win glee, but also a common scene in the Lakers locker room this season. The Lakers are enjoying flying high; when you have two of the best five players in the world, it’s hard not to.