SportsPulse: This is why the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis. After another strong performance from their big man in Game 4, Los Angeles is one win away from clinching its first title since 2010.
The moment that the ball fell through the net, Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis pounded his chest and screamed.
So did LeBron James, who imitated former professional wrestler Ric Flair’s signature “Whoo!” so well that he might want to proclaim him the King once again as he did earlier this season.
The sequence meant so many things.
Davis’ 3-pointer from the top of the key with 39.5 seconds left became the dagger shot that ensured a Lakers 102-96 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat for a 3-1 series lead. It served as the highlight moment to Davis’ 22-point effort on 8-of-16 shooting with nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks. It came two days after finishing a Game 3 loss with 15 points on only nine shots along with as many turnovers (five) as rebounds. Davis showed his season-long chemistry with James, who high-fived Davis with force after the play. Davis showed his season-long chemistry with Rajon Rondo, who set up Davis for that shot.
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“The credit goes to them, the success I’m having individually, because without them, no telling where I would be,” Davis said of James and Rondo. “Those two guys have been on my shoulders about almost anything you can think of, trying to help me become a champion.”
As he demonstrated in Game 4, however, Davis has done a lot of things to become closer to an NBA champion by embodying that mentality. Davis did not bask in that highlight reel. Moments later, Davis blocked Jimmy Butler as he drove to the basket while the Lakers held a 100-93 cushion with 20.5 seconds left.
“That’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” James said.
Save that debate for another day. That play is also why James publicly vouched for the Lakers to acquire him last season. That play is why the Lakers eventually acquired Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and the No. 4 pick.
It should surprise no one that Davis came through in a game James considered “a must-win,” as relayed in a group text. Nonetheless, the Lakers cannot help but marvel at Davis’ greatness and how he displayed his best qualities when the Lakers needed them the most.
“You don’t have to say anything to Anthony Davis. He wants this more than anything,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously he’s a great player capable of imposing his will on the game on both ends of the floor.”
Boy, did Davis do that.
Following Butler’s 40-point outing in Game 3, the Lakers were determined to change their philosophy. Even with Heat center Bam Adebayo returning after missing Games 2 and 3 with a neck injury, Davis and Vogel made a collaborative decision to guard Butler. While it might make more sense for the 6-foot-10, 253-poind Davis to defend the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Adebayo, it actually made more sense for Davis to handle Butler.
Adebayo remains hurt, while Butler has energized the Heat with his aggression. Today’s NBA calls for positional versality. Davis has the speed, length and smarts to keep up with Butler. After Butler had 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first quarter, the Lakers shifted course. Davis planned to become Butler’s primarily defender unless he fell into foul trouble. If James was near Butler, the Lakers star would not switch. In related news, Butler went 3-of-12 the rest of the game and 1-of-7 when Davis defended him.
“We just tried to give him a different look. Tried to make him shoot over a contested hand, finish over the length at the rim. Just make it tough for him,” Davis said. “It was very easy for him in Game 3. We just wanted to switch it up. I wanted to use a lot of my energy on the defensive end, knowing the other guys on the team were going to make up the absence for me on the offensive end.”
Davis still remained present on the offensive end, too. Though James (28 points), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (15) and Danny Green (10) also scored in double figures, Davis played aggressively by attacking the basket and becoming a perimeter threat.
So when Davis pulled up for 3 at the top of the key after running a pick-and-roll with Rondo, consider what his teammates anticipated. As Lakers guard Alex Caruso said, “as soon as AD shot it, I knew it was going in. That’s just what he does, making shots late in the game.” When Davis made the shot, James reacted the way he did because he already sensed the implications.
“A big-time play and a big-time moment,” James said. “Not only for AD but for our ballclub and our franchise.”
And Davis did it while playing through pain. He got poked in his right eye and initially looked like he might need to wear goggles as protection. On another play, Butler shoved Caruso, whose fall caused Davis to fall over him. Davis stayed on the ground before walking it off eventually. He reminded himself that Lakers center JaVale McGee told the team before the game, “we should come back into the locker room exhausted, leave it all out on the floor.”
“I’m not going to come out of the game. I’m fine,” Davis said. “It’s basketball. It’s the Finals. The game is physical. Plays happen where guys get hit, but you’ve got to be willing to leave it out on the floor.”
Davis has often done that after having sub-par games.
After grabbing only two rebounds in the Lakers’ Game 3 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, Davis followed with a 34-point effort and a game-winning 3-pointer in a Game 4 win. After shooting 8-of-24 in a Game 1 first-round loss to Portland, Davis responded with a 31-point effort on a 13-of-21 clip in a Game 2 win. In the regular season? Same story. Following games he shot below 50% from the field, Davis averaged 26.2 points the following game.
“He’s a great player. So obviously great players have great pride, and if they have a sub-par performance for whatever reason, they typically want to bounce back with a lot of assertiveness,” Vogel said. “We’ve seen that from Anthony throughout the course of this season.”
The Lakers saw that from Davis in Game 4. After studying footage of Game 3 and becoming increasingly agitated with what he saw, Davis dialed up his aggressiveness to make timely shots and timely blocks.
“If we play like that every game, you know, especially next game,” Davis said, “then we’re going to become champions.”