The secret is out, as thrilling as a buzzer swish, as aggravating as a lost ball.
The truth is finally upon us, as delightful as a giant who can play defense, as sobering as a giant who can just as easily disappear.
You know who’s the most important Laker? You know who’s the one Laker who must prove he can play at a consistently high level for them to win a championship?
You guessed wrong. It’s Anthony Davis.
It’s the guy who hits the “Mamba Shot” one night, and completely recoils the next. It’s the guy who is energized one quarter, and evaporates the next.
It’s not LeBron James, because we know how and when he’s going to show up. James is also 35, and has looked his age for long stretches in these playoffs, and can clearly no longer carry this team by himself.
Davis can do that. Davis must do that. Yet Davis has never done it before this deep in the postseason, never done it in Los Angeles, never even tried it. He is still the great unknown, some moments a legacy Laker, other moments a befuddling stranger, sometimes inspiring, too often unsettling.
On Thursday night at the AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., Davis was every bit of all that as the Lakers powered to a 114-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets and grabbed a three-games-to-one lead in Western Conference finals.
Davis started out great. Then he vanished. He rediscovered his aggressiveness only to twist his left ankle. He was down. He was up. He lost the ball in an important moment. He grabbed an offensive rebound and tipped another one to a teammate in bigger moments. After going without a rebound in the first half for a second consecutive game for the first time in his career — he’s 6-foot-10, how does that even happen? — he grabbed the last rebound of the game and finished with 34 points, five rebounds and three assists.
“He was terrific tonight,” said coach Frank Vogel, yet somehow it felt like he needed to be even better. Such is the conundrum that is Anthony Davis.
The franchise is 35-1 when leading three games to one, and they’re not blowing this one. They could, and should, secure their spot in the NBA Finals as soon as Saturday night. But the Lakers are never about Finals, they’re about championships, and that’s only going to happen if Davis’ skinny shoulders can lift the load from the broader ones of his celebrated teammate.
“I want to be aggressive, take some pressure off this guy over here… I’ve got his back, and he’s got mine,” said Davis during Thursday’s postgame videoconference, referring to James, who was seated nearby.
Yet to be honest, as Davis goes, so the Lakers go, particularly in this postseason.
In their series-opening loss to Portland, his plus/minus rating was a minus-20. The next game he was nearly unstoppable — 31 points, 11 rebounds — and the Lakers won four straight.
In their series-opening loss to Houston, he was pushed all over the floor by the Rockets’ 6-5 P.J. Tucker. The next game, he dominated, and the Lakers won four straight again
Fast forward to this series, which Davis seemed to own after his buzzer-beating trey — the Mamba Shot — crushed the Nuggets in Game 2. But then he gave away all the momentum with a general lack of fire that led to zero rebounds in the first three quarters of a Game 3 loss.
“Unacceptable,” he called his performance.
In what has become typical Davis fashion, he moped for a day and then affixed his hirsute game face for Thursday.
“If his brow is really low, then you know not to talk to him … yesterday his brow was very low … so we already knew the mindset he was in,” said James of Davis’ defining feature.
Sure enough, Davis scored the Lakers’ first 10 points in setting the tone for a furious night that eventually resulted in the Lakers outscoring the Nuggets 25-6 in second-chance points.
“I came out in my mind to be ultra-aggressive,” Davis said.
But he lost it just as quickly, making only two baskets with one rebound in the second and third quarters, noting, “They kind of wanted to try and take me out of it.”
They tried, and they succeeded, and that can’t happen for such a long stretch if the Lakers want to handle the defensive wizardry of their likely Finals opponent from Miami.
He finally figured it out in a monster fourth quarter — 10 points, four rebounds — highlighted by his resiliency. Midway through the quarter he appeared to badly twist his left ankle when he landed on it after a shot. Yet after writhing on the floor, he eventually stood up and never sat back down, standing through the entire ensuing timeout and never leaving the game.
Said Vogel: “Great toughness.”
Said Davis, who wasn’t wearing a boot afterward: “Ankle feels fine … rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”
Pushing Davis in that fourth quarter was his former New Orleans Pelican teammate Rajon Rondo and, don’t laugh, but Rondo might be the third most important player on this team partially because of his influence on Davis.
“Rondo is always in my ear about being the best defensive player on the floor, best offensive player on the floor, even when it doesn’t seem possible,” said Davis, who then described their exchanges.
“He might tell me, I need to go block a shot or close out to a guy, and then swing it across the floor, I need to be there too,” Davis explained. “I said, ‘Do, that’s impossible.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t care, at the end of the day you should be able to do it.’”
Rondo is right. For the most important Laker, nothing should be impossible. For his team to win a championship, Anthony Davis must make it his mission to believe it.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.