The game started with Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis setting the tone with an aggressive block and a careless kick. The game ended with Davis stuffing his opponent at the rim, sinking a 3-pointer and then stealing the ball on the other end.
Those plays not only captured Davis’ changed mindset that led to a much different performance in Game 2 (34 points on 7-for-15 shooting, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks) than in Game 1 (13 points on 5-for-16 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists). They also explained how the Lakers avoided falling into a 0-2 deficit that could have seriously derailed their hopes to defend their NBA championship.
“It’s going to be a challenge to repeat, obviously. It’s going to be a challenge to beat this team.,” Davis said. “In order for our team to do that, I’m going to have to play like I did tonight or better. I can’t play like I played in Game 1.”
Then, Davis lacked the necessary aggression that the Lakers expected of their second-best player behind LeBron James. Davis settled for jumpers instead of attacking the basket. He often missed those open shots. And he lacked consistent rim protection.
So after criticizing his own play afterward, Davis vowed to back up his honest words with tangible action.
Davis said Tuesday that he spent the last two days mostly cooped up in his hotel room. That gave him the privacy he needed to watch footage of his Game 1 performance as well as how the Suns’ Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder attacked and defended him. Davis also studied his performances in the 2020 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, who featured Crowder at the time.
At practice on Monday, Davis was the last to leave the gym. He and James normally speak basketball, trade tips and crack jokes, but not this time.
“I didn’t even talk to him that much,” Davis said. “He knows when I do that, it’s going to be a good night for me. Just trying to stay locked in.”
The tactic worked. Lakers coach Frank Vogel observed that Davis immediately showed a change in behavior with his “great assertiveness.”
On the first possession, Davis blocked Suns guard Devin Booker at the rim. On the following possession, Davis might have gotten a little too amped up. He attempted a 3-pointer only for his right leg to hit Crowder in the groin area. Officials assessed Davis with a Flagrant Foul 1, which prompted Suns fans to boo Davis mercilessly at that point and onward.
“They’re fans. That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Davis said. “They’re going to stick up for their players and they’re supposed to cheer for their team. It wasn’t intentional. Jae knows that. He came and told me it wasn’t intentional. I’ve never been a type of player to do anything like that.”
Davis, however, is the type of player who has immediately rectified poor performances since the Lakers acquired him from New Orleans in the 2019 offseason.
During the Lakers’ seed-in games last year in the NBA bubble, Davis followed up poor showings against Toronto (14 points) and Indiana (eight) with dominant play against Utah (42) and Denver (27). After going only 8-for-24 in the Lakers’ Game 1 first-round loss to Portland, Davis responded in Game 2 with 31 points on 13-for-21 shooting.
Davis made sure he didn’t let Tuesday’s early-game foul stop him from reaching his goal of compensating for his Game 1 play.
James connected with Davis for a fast-break dunk. Davis returned the favor to James for a lob. Davis helped make Andre Drummond feel comfortable in the post. When Davis caught the ball on single coverage, he drove toward the basket. When Davis attracted a double team, he found James for an open 3-pointer. When defenders gave Davis open shots, he occasionally took the jump and often drove to the basket to draw a trip to the free-throw line. Whenever Davis made defensive stops, he pushed the ball in transition.
In the final four minutes, Davis threw down a dunk inside. He swatted Ayton’s shot from behind. He drained an open 3-pointer. Davis then ripped the ball out of Cam Payton’s hands as he drove to the basket.
“He’s not a guy who talks about it; he’s about it,” said James, who finished with 23 points. “He goes out and does it.”
This does not mean the Lakers are suddenly invincible. James’ health (ankle, shoulder) has fluctuated. Vogel has experimented with the center rotation. And the Lakers’ bench has remained inconsistent. But the Lakers have no chance of making the best of those circumstances if Davis cannot play at his best.
“I don’t put too much pressure on myself,” Davis said. “I go out there and play basketball.”
By doing that, though, Davis relieved the Lakers of feeling some of that pressure. The Lakers trust and hope Davis can continue to do so through the remainder of their unpredictable playoff journey.