You say Anthony Davis’ buzzer beater to win Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals for the Lakers will be his signature moment of this playoff run—and you would be right.
It was dramatic. It was unforgettable. It was, as Davis yelled in celebration immediately, “Kobe.”
Yet what has also been openly there for all to see, albeit much more quietly and cloaked in the lonelier moments when all the world’s mouths haven’t been agape at his success and joy looping on autoplay before their eyes:
Three times the Lakers have lost games in these playoffs, and every single time, Davis has dangled himself to be available as a punching bag for anyone frustrated by the team’s loss. However much truth there has been to Davis’ responsibility, he has owned it and more.
The playoffs bring out truth about players, to be honest, and this is the truth about Davis: He is accountable when something goes wrong. He is determined to make it right. He cares so deeply, and he knows he can always make a difference.
This is why he has always been a beloved teammate—not a finger-pointer, not sneering at those who didn’t make him look better or win him more games in New Orleans.
It’s all the more appreciated now with the Lakers in the playoffs because it works for him. He has, as promised, done better the next time—and stayed better. The story arc of the Lakers’ playoffs has been those first-game failures being followed by domination in all the ways Davis’ game reflects the Lakers’ best game.
Now the Lakers have dropped Game 3 to the Denver Nuggets and face that bounce-back challenge once more Thursday.
“We know how we’ve got to play in Game 4,” Davis said, “from start to finish.”
Comparing the Lakers’ 10 victories to their three losses so far show Davis as a difference rainmaker: plus-15.7 versus minus-7.3 … 60.1 percent shooting versus 47.4 … 47.8 three-point percentage versus 9.1 … 4.5 assists versus 1.0.
So, there he was again after the Game 3 loss, ever accountable, taking failure internally and acutely.
“I’ve got to do a better job on the glass, personally,” he said. “I can’t have two rebounds for an entire game. So, I have to be better in that aspect. It’s unacceptable.”
He brought up, unsolicited, a key late-game play that he and Rajon Rondo “messed up on a fast-break opportunity where it should’ve been a guaranteed two points.” And Davis offered a sneak peek at his thinking for Game 4 with mention of not settling for too many jumpers: “Pump-fakes and driving to the basket, re-driving and finding an open teammate, is also a solution.”
A constant of this season has been LeBron James appreciating how much his co-star deeply suffers defeat (on the few occasions it has happened) and urging Davis to take it hard, fine, but not make it so hard on himself. It would be impossible, though, for this team to have grown the way it has—or for Davis to have grown so much in his career—without his care factor.
Besides sheer amazeballs talent, what stands out about Davis is this earnestness.
You can be a history scholar who believes devoutly the past influences the future while also a stay-in-the-moment purist whose execution comes from knowing nothing matters but the now. The trick is that if you’re going to remember what went wrong before, you’d be wise to learn the lesson rather than live in the past: Don’t dwell, just do well next time.
Davis is the guy who prides himself on redemption.
He’s the one who remembers the Lakers lost to Portland in their first game after Kobe Bryant’s death—and savors eliminating Portland in first round. He’s the one who remembers “when I was struggling” in Game 5 of the second round and James offered valuable counsel to him at the scorer’s table as a reason why it felt so good to finish off Houston and that series that night.
Ask him about his momentous shot to take Game 2 against Denver, and Davis briefly glosses over the go-ahead shot he made over Nikola Jokic on the Lakers’ previous possession and reviews in detail his failure against Jokic on the ensuing play—before Davis redeemed it with his buzzer beater.
“I remember the play before, I got the floater. They come down—we knew it was going to Jokic—and I let him get to his strength, which is his right hand,” Davis said. “He got a hook, scored; they go up one. And I was kind of upset, because I’m a better defensive player than that.”
Rondo encouraged Davis then simply to go score on Jokic at the other end. Davis did—his three-pointer barely clearing Jokic’s close-out and raised hand en route to destiny.
But even with that success, Davis is the guy who couldn’t wait to remind anyone who forgot: Remember when I missed that other game-winning three?!
“Right before the hiatus, against the Brooklyn Nets: Same spot, slightly different play, and I missed the shot,” Davis said. “I was upset with myself, and he [James] said: ‘We’re going to live or die with you shooting that shot.’ “
“Bron will tell you,” Davis continued, “the first four days, I was talking to him like, ‘Damn, I should’ve made that shot for you. I’ve got to make that shot for you.’ And he was like, ‘You’re fine, you’re fine.’ “
“But I put more pressure on myself than anybody. I feel like every shot I take is supposed to go in, and I have enough confidence in my shot to make those types of plays.”
A million little things, including James’ support, go into Davis making that Game 2 winner against Denver and making that memory for everyone. Frank Vogel’s season-long encouragement for Davis to take three-point shots without hesitation—even challenging him to average five attempts on a late November road trip—is a piece of that puzzle. Davis’ willingness to revamp his shooting form years ago to a higher release point is certainly part of the foundation; Jokic would’ve blocked Davis’ old shot, easy.
The puzzle all fits together because of Davis’ profound commitment to being better. It’s the catapult for him wanting to come to the Lakers in the first place.
Previously, Davis’ last go-ahead basket in a game’s final five seconds was Jan. 15, 2016. It wasn’t really a shot. It was an alley-oop dunk for the Pelicans over the Hornets. It improved the Pelicans to 13-26 in a season when they finished 30-52.
The last time Davis hit a buzzer-beating, winning shot was the previous year—Feb. 6, 2015—his third year in the league. That’s more than five years of waiting and wondering what he might be capable of in a different situation and setting.
The make against Denver and the 2015 double-clutch three-point make against Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant were far more difficult shots than the one Davis missed against Brooklyn in March. James had penetrated and pitched the ball across to Davis for a stationary, open three in front of the opposing bench. It was such a good look that you could see chagrin cross Durant’s face on the Nets’ bench as Davis released the ball.
Davis had to work much harder to earn the opportunity against Denver, reading the defense and finding the time and space where Rondo could set him up with the inbounds pass on a short clock. Davis was the second option on the play, but he clearly became the first option when Denver lined up with two defenders near James.
The ball found Davis’ energy, and the Lakers got Game 2.
That didn’t happen down the stretch of their Game 3 loss Tuesday. The overall outing, despite 27 points, didn’t adhere to Davis’ vow late in the first round: “My whole thing is just be aggressive for the rest of the time I’m here.”
The reality is that no one is everything every night. Legendary Lakers coach Phil Jackson used to define an NBA superstar as someone who dominated three out of four games, but the imperfection is often forgotten by the masses when the domination returns the next night.
As we know now, Davis is not one to forget his imperfections. He uses them as fuel.
It was back in early December that the Lakers lost and Davis announced: “Our whole thing is we don’t want to lose two in a row. Ever.”
They went out the next game and won. In Denver.
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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views
expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the
Los Angeles Lakers.
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