The ball swished, the buzzer sounded, and Anthony Davis staggered across the court. He beat his fist to his chest. He screamed what all of Los Angeles was thinking.
“Kobe!” he shouted, again and again. “Kobe!”
At the end of a harrowing Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals, a quiet giant summoned a Lakers god while joining his company.
In a moment Kobe Bryant would have loved, firing up a shot Bryant would have taken, all while wearing a black uniform that Bryant designed, Davis splashed his way into Lakers lore by hitting a three-pointer with officially 00.0 seconds remaining to give the Lakers a 105-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Count your goose bumps. Sink into your memories. Say good-bye to the overmatched Nuggets, who now trail two games to none after blowing probably their best chance for an upset.
It wasn’t just a shot, it was a dagger, and goodness, how Kobe would have loved it.
“He’s hit countless shots like that to win games … it’s a huge dream,” Davis said.
On an inbounds play with 2.1 seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing by one, Davis sprinted open behind a stifled LeBron James, took the bounce pass from Rajon Rondo, and threw up the shot over the outstretched arm of equally large Nikola Jokic. After it swished, Davis turned and ran into the arms of his teammates, leaping into their mass embrace with such force that he even knocked Talen Horton-Tucker to the floor. Then he walked away and began shouting the name that perfectly described the moment.
“That’s a shot Kobe Bryant would hit,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said. “To me, A.D. coming off just flying to the wing like that, catch-and-shoot with the biggest game on the line of the season, nothing but net, it’s a Mamba shot.”
There it is. It will be forever known as The Mamba Shot, and will join other playoff buzzer-beaters in Lakers legend.
This looked like The Horry Shot, Robert Horry’s bomb that beat Sacramento in the 2002 conference finals. This felt like the Point-Four Shot, Derek Fisher’s heave that stole a win from the San Antonio Spurs in the 2004 conference semifinals. And, of course, this imitated many of Bryant’s shots throughout his 20 years as one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history.
“Special moment for me, special moment for the team,” Davis said, later noting, “To do something like that, and with the jersey we wore tonight, it makes it even more special.”
The stage was actually set with the jersey. The Lakers had blown a 16-point lead in the final eight minutes when Vogel called them to the bench and reminded them what they were wearing. “He said, ‘Look at the jerseys you have on, he would have made big-time plays, so it’s time for us to make big-time plays,’” Davis recounted.
In what became his official indoctrination into the franchise family — he’s a Laker now, folks — Davis complied by taking over and scoring the final 10 points of the game. This was the pressure production everyone has been expecting since he was traded here last summer. This was his first real chance to be a playoff hero. These were, finally, the fireworks that had been promised.
“I’ve seen that from him all year,” Vogel said. “No surprise by me. No surprise by our whole group.”
Yeah, but when it comes to saving your team with no ticks left in an NBA playoff game, there’s no time like the first time, and you could hear it in Davis’ screams.
“It’s special moments like that that you keep forever,” he said.
The moment began, as these triumphs often do, with failure. With 20.8 seconds remaining, the Nuggets had taken the lead when Jokic backed down Davis and scored on a hook shot over him.
“I was kind of upset because I’m a better defensive player than that,” said Davis, who then recounted some special coaching. “Rondo told me, ‘It’s all right, he scored on you, now you go get it back.'”
And so he did, with a shot that was born of hustle. In the final seconds, Alex Caruso missed a three-pointer but Danny Green grabbed the rebound and threw up a shot that Jamal Murray blocked out of bounds. If the Nuggets get that rebound, the game is over.
“Most people would give up on plays,” Davis said. “It was a huge offensive rebound.”
It was a shot also born of bravado. Before the inbounds play, Rondo essentially talked his way into the game as the passer.
“As I was about to look for him, he came over and said, ‘Different passer?”’ Vogel said. “I’m like, heck yeah, let’s go, let’s get him in.”
Sure enough, Rondo was the perfect person for the job. When he saw that James was covered by Jerami Grant, he found Davis running free and connected.
“I just kind of looked at ‘Do and we made eye contact,” said Davis. “He made a great pass.”
And Davis made a great move, noticing that Mason Plumlee was more worried about helping out on James than guarding him, running wide so he was momentarily open for the shot before Jokic closed.
“I knew if I kind of flew around with them kind of locked in on 'Bron, I was going to probably have a clean look,” Davis said.
So the basketball beautifully soared and perfectly dropped, from Davis’ hands to Kobe Bryant’s memory, from loss to rebirth, from cheers to chills.
Now and forever, The Mamba Shot.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.