The past dies when you put on a Los Angeles Lakers uniform.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s title with the Milwaukee Bucks is now the stuff of easy Jeopardy questions. His titles with the Lakers are part of the legend of Showtime: a book, an upcoming documentary, a slogan that immediately gets you daydreaming about highlight reels and smiles and confetti.
On Wednesday night, Anthony Davis delivered an NBA Finals debut that will be etched in Lakers lore: he scored 34 points in Los Angeles’ 116-98 Game 1 victory against the Miami Heat, the third-most in for a Laker in their Finals debut, behind Shaq, whose full name I don’t have to tell you, George Mikan and Abdul-Jabbar. Davis also added nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
“It's a great honor to be in that category with those guys,” Davis said after the game. “They have done so much for the game, Hall of Famers. For me to come out and perform that way and be mentioned with those guys, especially just as a Laker — with the biggest franchise in basketball — them guys that you watch film on, that you idolize, and now, to be in that category, is definitely a huge honor for me.”
Davis gave up money, frayed relationships and drew the ire of the city of New Orleans when he forced a trade to Los Angeles. This is why. The moments are bigger, more legacy-defining because when it comes to basketball, you are never more in the public eye than when you play for the Lakers — life isn’t fair, it just is. Just ask Dwight Howard, who could only salvage the reputation he tarnished in Los Angeles by coming back.
The games may not be at Staples Center. Jack isn’t courtside. But Tinseltown will keep his promise if Davis keeps his: win here, and you’re immortalized forever. “What makes it even sweeter is winning it,” said Davis. “So obviously that's a great honor, but I also want to be mentioned in categories with champions.”
Fifteen games into the playoffs, it was barely a question whether Davis would show up. “He’s just a great player,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “The moment doesn’t change anything for him.”
As for Davis himself? After a moment of reflection, he said, “Um, it was just the Finals.” The nerves, he continued, were like they were in the Western Conference, where a run for the ages crescendoed in a game-winning shot. “I’m like that!” he proclaimed after. He had to announce it because so many people didn’t know.
The spotlight finally matches his talent, but Davis is the same player he’s been for ages — just a little more optimized, with a hotter touch. Only the context has changed.
In fact, it’s glaring how steadily dominant Davis has been during his first deep playoff run. A star’s first deep playoff run typically leaves them naked and unspooled. They have to twist and contort their way through the first three rounds, watch their weaknesses get exposed and then bounce back immediately. Survivors evolve, emerging with bruises and some new tools to carry into future battles.
Have we even seen the best of Anthony Davis yet?
The playoffs unpeel new layers within superstars. LeBron has lived it, failing his way to becoming unguardable with a stronger jumper and a post-up game. Davis’ consistency begs the question: even as he climbs to the NBA’s mountaintop, how much more of his potential remains untapped?
He has faced few impositions. Instead, Davis is forcing opponents to adjust around him. The Lakers have fiddled around with a few things, most notably going small against the Houston Rockets — which, for them, means playing 6-foot-10, 255-pound Davis at center. It didn’t affect his performance as much as it phased out his bigger, beefer teammates Howard and JaVale McGee, to make it easier to chase 3-point shooters and switch more matchups.
In the playoffs, Davis has scored under 25 points just twice — both blowout victories. He hasn’t had a big comeback moment. He hasn’t needed one. The closest was a two-rebound outing against the Denver Nuggets that ultimately never mattered. They never mounted a consistent answer to his dominance. Neither did the Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers or in Game 1, the Heat.
Sixteen of Davis’ points came in the paint. He was 10-for-10 at the free-throw line. He pushed Jae Crowder around down low. He caught lobs over Derrick Jones Jr. Andre Iguodala was too small. Davis and James kept Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s best chance at stopping him, in constant foul trouble. Now, Adebayo’s future in the series hangs in the balance after a left shoulder injury took him out of the game. Even without the ball, Davis’ rolls to the rim twisted Miami’s defense. Davis sucks opponents into the middle. LeBron set up the shooters. When LeBron sits, Rondo becomes the conductor. When the shots fall (if there is any good news for Heat fans, oftentimes they don’t), the mechanism works perfectly for the Lakers.
Double team, and Davis passes. Go big, and he uses his speed to get around you. Go small, and he uses his long stride and quick first step to get around you. Lay back? He’ll unfurl one of the prettiest emerging jumpers in the NBA.
Even on defense, Davis has hardly had to adjust, mostly dropping back on pick and rolls throughout the playoffs, switching onto sharp-shooters. Throughout Game 1, he invited Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler (who also sustained injuries) and Tyler Herro into the paint only to spike the ball out of the air when they released it or muscle them up en route to clanked layups.
The Lakers deserve credit. They zigged when the rest of the NBA zagged, and they were ridiculed for arming their lineup with McGee and Howard, two big men who don’t shoot threes, and Rondo, a play-making savant who doesn’t historically shoot them well. No team has been equipped to match their size. No one ever thought they’d have to. The assumption all along was that the opposition’s shooting would force an adjustment.
But the Lakers have dictated terms. They dominate vertical space, with athletic big men that bat the ball back and forth and playmakers that throw passes high enough that only they can catch them.
That leaves the Heat with questions. Do they break the emergency glass and play Meyers Leonard, who did a passable job against Davis in the regular season? Do they get real and stick Adebayo — if he’s healthy — on Anthony Davis for 42 minutes and hope Crowder and Iguodala can hold off Howard in the paint?
The playoffs are supposed to force teams to learn something about themselves. The Heat will spend Thursday studying before Game 2. Coach Erik Spoelstra is a basketball genius armed with a versatile roster, when healthy. Maybe they can muster an adjustment that teaches Davis a lesson or two. But so far, the only thing the playoffs have proved about Anthony Davis is that he is who he thought he was.
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