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The Clippers Are Built to Beat LeBron, Not Anthony Davis

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two of the NBA’s best defenders—but not against the Lakers’ do-everything 7-footer, who took over Thursday’s game and could do the same in a potential conference finals showdown

Getty Images/Ringer illustratioin

The Clippers don’t have an answer for Anthony Davis. LeBron James made the key plays down the stretch of the Lakers’ dramatic 103-101 win on NBA Reopening Night on Thursday, but Davis was the difference in the game. He had 34 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, and dominated the paint on both ends of the floor. The scary part for the Clippers is that he could have done even more.

The game comes so simply to Davis that it’s easy to forget just how talented he is. He’s one of the most versatile 7-footers in NBA history. On defense, he made Kawhi Leonard look human. The only way the reigning Finals MVP could create create space off the dribble against him was to use pump fakes and misdirection:

Davis was an even bigger problem for the Clippers on offense. For all the team’s depth, they don’t have anyone who can stop him from getting to the rim. That’s why he attempted 17 free throws on Thursday and 14 against them on opening night. The only hole on their roster is the lack of an über-athletic big man to guard Davis. Look at how effortless these baskets are. Marcus Morris might as well not even be there:

The Lakers need to take advantage of all the issues that their superstar big man creates for other teams. Although he dominated Thursday’s game, he was also a bystander for large stretches. That should never happen with a player who can do as many things as Davis.

The third quarter was a perfect example of both the good and bad. The Lakers’ starting lineup of LeBron James, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis, and JaVale McGee was minus-13 in the first five minutes of the quarter. Davis was 0-for-3 with one turnover. He had nowhere to go with McGee clogging the lane. Bigger lineups with Davis and a traditional center dominated during the regular season, but they are easy pickings for an elite defense like that of the Clippers. Davis needs to be at the 5 as much as possible in the playoffs. This kind of spacing negates what he can do so well:

Everything opened up when the Lakers went small. When they swapped McGee and Green for Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso in the third against the Clippers, they were plus-10 over the next seven minutes. Playing the 5, Davis had 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting with two assists during that span. His only miss came on a heat-check 3.

That has been the story for Davis all season. His production skyrockets when he’s the only big man on the floor. He has a true shooting percentage of 65.8 and a usage rate of 28.8 in 749 minutes without McGee or Dwight Howard next to him. That is the type of efficiency you expect out of a big man who does nothing but catch lobs. To give you an idea of just how incredible AD’s numbers are in that role, no one with a usage rate higher than 28 (the workload of a primary option) has a true shooting percentage above 62 this season. He’s completely unstoppable when the Lakers give him the space to play one-on-one at the rim.

That was true even when LeBron went to the bench Thursday. The Lakers were plus-5 in the final five minutes of the third with Davis, Kuzma, KCP, Caruso, and Dion Waiters on the floor. They had no traditional point guard, so they ran everything through their other MVP-caliber big man.

That’s the silver lining of the injury to Rajon Rondo, who is out six to eight weeks with a broken hand. The Lakers have paired Davis and Rondo when LeBron has sat this season, and those lineups have been run off the floor, with a net rating of minus-5.0 in 357 minutes. Rondo has been getting by on his name for a long time. He can’t shoot, score, or play defense anymore, and the offense has to run through him because opponents don’t respect him off the ball. Caruso and Waiters, unlike Rondo, can spot up off of Davis and create space for him.

The next step for Davis is improving as a passer. His one statistical red flag this season is his drop in assists, from a career-high 3.9 last season to 3.1. He doesn’t have to be Nikola Jokic. He’s so big that he can see over the defense, and opposing teams have to sell out to stop him. The Clippers sent double-teams from every direction, forcing him into four turnovers:

The Lakers need to involve him on defense more, too. They don’t have many players who can guard Kawhi or George, who combined for 58 points on 36 shots in Thursday’s loss. Davis is wasted guarding bigger spot-up shooters like JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson at the 3-point line. He wasn’t perfect when switched onto George, giving him too much space on the perimeter and jumping at too many pump fakes, but he showed that he could stay in front of arguably the best no. 2 option in the league:

Leaving Davis on secondary options instead of the Clippers’ stars would repeat the same mistake the Bucks made with Giannis Antetokounmpo last season, when they never put him on Kawhi in the Eastern Conference finals even as Leonard was torching the rest of their team.

The Lakers won’t be able to leave any points on the board in a potential Western Conference finals showdown with the Clippers. Their rivals were a shadow of themselves on Thursday, with Patrick Beverley playing only 16 minutes and Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell sitting out. It will be different when Reggie Jackson is a backup point guard instead of shooting 3-for-10 in 34 minutes, and Patterson, who has not looked the same since leaving Toronto three seasons ago, is getting DNP-CDs instead of guarding Davis.

The dynamic between the two teams could be like the one between the Warriors and the Rockets last season. Golden State knew Houston was its biggest threat in the West, so it emptied the clip in Game 1 of its second-round series and never looked back. The Warriors immediately started the Lineup of Death and played their five starters 196 of a possible 240 minutes (81.7 percent) in the game. If the Lakers were to use the same philosophy, they would start Davis at the 5, play him 45 minutes, and put him on Kawhi or George for most of the game.

Davis is a dominant presence who can change the dynamic of a playoff series when used correctly. He just didn’t get to show it much on the Pelicans. His eye-popping career postseason averages (30.5 points on 52.6 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game) are even more incredible when you consider that nine of his 13 playoff games came against the Warriors. He humiliated the Blazers, the only mortal opponent that he ever faced, in a first-round sweep in 2018.

Davis is an all-time great talent with plenty of room to get better. He can improve his shooting and passing and spend more time guarding the best perimeter players. He’s still only 27. We may not see the best version of him for two or three more seasons. But the Lakers might need a sneak peak to win the title this season.