LAS VEGAS — There was the obligatory scary moment for Anthony Davis, the customary reminder LeBron James is a senior citizen in NBA life and that swarming Lakers defense that’s more reliable in travel than a Visa card.
Yup, it seems like the Lakers at least have a playoff script, if not a playoff mode.
The “Let’s go Lakers” chant from the decidedly partisan crowd at T-Mobile Arena made it feel like it was Staples Center — or whatever it’s being called nowadays — punctuated by the Lakers controlling the in-season tournament final from start to finish over the Indiana Pacers.
Davis’ 41 points, 20 rebounds, five assists and four blocks is one of the best individual performances anyone has recorded this season, but it won’t count in the overall stats.
But we all saw it, felt his presence — certainly the Pacers did as they tried to avoid him wherever he was. And poor Myles Turner could do nothing with Davis, fouling out trying to box him out, trying to stop him at the rim or anywhere else.
Resistance wasn’t futile, but the results were against Davis.
Turner is no pushover, either. He carries a massive presence and has been a critical piece in the Pacers’ escape from the wilderness.
But the way Turner was manhandled by Davis, let’s just say he’ll be glad to face the woeful Detroit Pistons in a couple days.
That’s what Davis can do, and has done plenty of times — perhaps placing himself in the pole position for the league’s best defensive player. It was a game of cat-and-mouse between Davis and Tyrese Haliburton on pick-and-roll coverages, and unlike against Boston and Milwaukee, Davis had the discipline to commandeer and ensure a star-making performance wasn’t gonna happen on his watch.
It’s truly hard to contextualize what we witnessed in the IST. It’s fruitless in attempting to correlate what this will mean in terms of May and June, if the Lakers get that far. And to their credit, the Lakers didn’t try to make this bigger than what it was.
As they celebrated their win, it wasn’t over the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks, there wasn’t a dejected and soul-snatched group that slinked off the floor being vanquished — it was a Pacers team happy to be there.
But that’s not the Lakers’ fault, or their imposing center’s.
They won the in-season tournament because they treated it with an appropriate focus and handled the business placed in front of them.
“This is a great source of positive stimuli for us with this group,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Trying to come together with guys coming from being inactive to being active and being in rhythm, the continuity and also the heightened awareness because we’re playing an in-season tournament. I think just everyone being able to have their competitive spirit revealed and people, their comrades to see their competitive spirits was a huge shot in the arm for us.”
Davis was all of that. James is special in his own way because he can take over a game for stretches and simply dictate pace and tempo. When Davis dominates, it feels like something has been unlocked in the matrix, making the ending inevitable.
Perhaps it’s because James is the constant and Davis feels like the variable from night to night. It’s hard to quantify the difficulty in carrying a defense from the interior and being the offensive hub or safety valve every night — maybe Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo are the only two who can claim they have to bring it on both ends with no letdown nightly.
“Any time I step on the floor, I know I’m the anchor of the defense,” Davis said. “Giving guys the freedom to press up and get some ball pressure, and if they get beat, I’m there at the rim to alter the shot or block it.
“But that’s my job. I’m constantly talking with the guys. Especially me and ’Bron have great chemistry as far as our defensive schemes and what we like to do, the four and the five. Overall, I think we’ve been locked in defensively.”
Davis is almost in a trick bag playing next to James. On one hand, he’s played next to James longer than Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh or Kyrie Irving did, but probably wouldn’t be the first teammate one associates with James.
And his performance is also scrutinized and dissected more than the rest, simply because his talent is undeniable. The instances where he puts his force into games feels so powerful, it’s expected every night against every opponent as opposed to being marveled at.
And when he doesn’t, it’s hell on earth the next day because “he didn’t do enough,” and he’s letting James down. As the aforementioned teammates experienced, it’s hard being in James’ orbit — nothing will ever be good enough, and it’s simply not smart to build a team with someone else in mind as first priority.
He won’t outshine his historical teammate and even in the cases that he does, like this 40-20 masterpiece, it won’t even count in the actual statistics. And he won’t be awarded an MVP in this, no matter how meaningful or meaningless some view it.
He nestles perfectly in James’ shadow, never upsetting the apple cart when his talent makes the case he could cause conflict.
It doesn’t mean James doesn’t appreciate what Davis brings. James brought Davis to Los Angeles as a shot in his own arm. The transaction from New Orleans to the Lakers was ugly, but hardly anyone remembers that.
The bubble championship did happen; they just haven’t found a way to duplicate that success in the time since.
“Especially at the later stage of my career, to be able to get a young, hungry alpha male to go out there and just do the things that he does,” James said. “It’s definitely given me an opportunity to be able to not only watch as he’s continued to grow, but also be able to try to inspire him as well as he continues to grow in his career and vice versa.
“I feel like when we are on the floor together and we’re healthy, we know what we’re capable of doing. We’ve played too many games together, shared too many moments together, played in too many big moments together to fail each other. It’s been everything.”
This isn’t quite Bubble AD, but something different. What it is will be determined later.