Sunday night provided Anthony Davis with what he called the best moment of his career thus far, as he hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Lakers a Game 2 win over the Nuggets and take a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals. It was, as he described it, the exact kind of opportunity he wanted when he requested out of New Orleans to join the Lakers: The chance to play for championships and to take and make the most important shots in the biggest moments along the way.
— NBA (@NBA) September 21, 2020
Davis came to the Los Angeles Lakers with a reputation as someone incapable of lifting a team over the top in the postseason as a leading man, and it’s clear that he’s keenly aware of that. He’d twice made the playoffs in New Orleans, winning one series, and as a supposed top-tier superstar, there was an expectation that he could single-handedly do more, because the discourse around stars in a team sport is never as nuanced as it should be.
The failures of the collective always fall hardest on the star, no matter whether expectations for contention were realistic or not, or if their production saw a significant uptick come playoff time. Nevermind that Davis averaged 30.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in 13 playoff appearances — the expectation, fairly or not, for those deemed to have the potential to be the elite of the elite is to carry a team merely by your presence.
It is in large part the fault of Davis’ new teammate LeBron James that burden exists for No. 1 overall picks, as James, while facing plenty of criticism himself for not dragging the Cavs to a title in his first run in Cleveland, was able to take them to a Finals in just his fourth season. LeBron knows exactly what Davis has felt in hearing people question his abilities in the playoffs, even as he posts preposterous numbers, and has no doubt used that to fuel his big man’s drive to quiet those doubters now. James has walked in those shoes, going from a beloved top pick to a reviled villain to some for joining a fellow star (or stars) to make a run at a title, but also knows that excelling en route to a championship or two will, eventually, soften many of a player’s most fervent of critics.
After Davis’ shot and the exuberant celebration with his teammates, Davis and LeBron shared a smile and a handshake, with James glowing as he embraced his teammate; a knowing look that Davis had reached a pivotal moment in his evolution as a star. That was the moment Davis came to L.A. for and he nailed it, putting aside questions of his “killer instinct,” something that had been uttered by Charles Barkley an hour-plus before on the halftime show. It not only served as a rebuke of his doubters, but further lifted Davis’ belief that he belongs in those moments, proving that his productivity is far from empty, and wins can come from his efforts.
Game 2 was won by Davis, with LeBron taking a backseat to his star teammate down the stretch. Davis scored the final 10 points of the night for the Lakers, with them needing every single bucket to withstand a furious comeback from Denver and a similar stretch of play late from Nikola Jokic. Davis, who had just nine first half points while LeBron had 20, reversed the script in the second half with 22 of his 31, willing the Lakers to a win.
James has been spectacular for the Lakers and is irreplaceable to what they do, but Davis’ play this postseason has been unassailable and is a large part of why they’ve cruised through the first 12 games of their playoff run at a tidy 10-2 clip. In 421 minutes with Davis on the floor, the Lakers have a +15.1 net rating, which craters to a -8.5 in the 155 minutes he’s sat this postseason. While there’s always noise to on/off net rating, the Lakers play with and without him is noticeable on the eye test.
He’s dominated every matchup he’s been tasked with, big or small, adapting his game as needed to the opponent. In the first round, it was the size, length, and strength of Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside, with Davis using his athleticism to slice through the Blazers’ two big lineups. In the second round, after an early stumble against P.J. Tucker, he found his groove and asserted his presence through physical dominance on both ends of the floor. In the conference finals, it’s been Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap who have worked to slow him, but have yet to find a recipe for continued success.
It was more than just one shot.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 21, 2020
Davis’ averages of 28.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game are slightly below those he had with the Pelicans in the postseason, but that was to be expected with LeBron sharing the usage burden. What’s been impressive are the various ways Davis has dominated and the efficiency with which he’s producing. His 65.4 true shooting percentage is by far the best mark of his career — regular season or playoffs — aided by the fact that he’s hitting threes at a 40 percent clip after shooting just 33 percent during the regular season. On top of that, his assist rate has skyrocketed to 19.2 this postseason, averaging 3.9 dimes per game, which is more than double his highest playoff assist rate in New Orleans. For a team with questions about playmaking, Davis has been able to facilitate and create some opportunities for shooters on top of his own scoring, as he has simply upped his game in just about every facet thus far in the playoffs.
It’s that ability that defines the very best players, and while his numbers indicated he was more than capable of that in New Orleans, people demand to see it on a title contender (or even better, a title winner). There’s no doubt that playing with James helps Davis, but the opposite is true as well. Davis bailed out James in Game 2, as the all-time great stumbled a bit down the stretch, stepping aside to let his star teammate carry the Lakers to the finish line. Finding that balance in having stars that can both co-exist but also are equally capable of taking over when needed is a tricky and at times perilous proposition — just ask the Clippers — but Davis has embraced that challenge and has more than held up his end of that bargain thus far in the playoffs with LeBron.