With around four and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter, the final game of the longest and weirdest season in NBA history hadn’t yet collapsed into a bloodbath, but the Miami Heat were in trouble: trailing by 14, laboring miserably on offense, wobbling badly under a ferocious application of Full Bore LeBron James. Jimmy Butler, superheroic in Games 3 and 5, looked like he was playing in ankle-deep mud.
Kendrick Nunn was one of the few Miami players whose legs and spirit seemed fresh, and they ran one of their pet actions for him: a pair of staggered screens just inside the three-point arc, the second doubling as a handoff from Bam Adebayo. Nunn, scraped completely free from his defender by the screens, curled around Adebayo and attacked. Adebayo’s defender, Anthony Davis, backpedaled toward the rim but with his hips turned toward Adebayo, who’d scored off easy lob passes out of this exact play a handful of times just in the past couple games. This is the impossible choice this action, especially run by a team as sharp and coordinated as the Heat, is designed to force upon Adebayo’s defender. Pivot toward the ballhandler, and he lobs it up for Adebayo to throw down; stay attached to Adebayo, as Davis seemed to be doing, and give up a high-percentage look to the ballhandler.
Or, if you are Anthony Davis, you can just take away everything.
NBA big men exist along a gradient. One grade—let’s call it the Enes Kanter Level—has done his absolute best if he has at least taken away either the Nunn layup or the Adebayo alley-oop slam, even if the other one scores uncontested. At least he didn’t trip over his shoelaces or commit an and-one foul. Another, at perhaps the Ian Mahinmi Level, has his shit together enough to charge at Nunn like an enraged grizzly bear and foul the shit out of him before he can make the lob pass. He’ll go minus-nine and foul out in 13 minutes of play, but at least he made somebody shoot a pair of free throws. Far, far above these doofuses, at the Rudy Gobert Level, are the very few, very large, very good defenders who can turn toward the speedy Nunn and move their feet to cut off his path to the rim, while relying on their sheer bulk and verticality to deter the easy lob pass across the paint. These are Defensive Player of the Year-type dudes: Gobert, Joel Embiid, peak-years Marc Gasol, a healthy and engaged Kristaps Porzingis. Monsters.
Nobody does what Anthony Davis did. Nobody keeps his hips turned fully toward Adebayo until Nunn has committed to the layup, then not only whirls all the way around quickly enough to contest the shot, but snakes an endless arm out there and fucking swats the thing. I insist that you scroll back up there and look at the GIF again. Look at Anthony Davis’s feet; the small quick steps he takes, so that he can open up toward Nunn with his right foot instead of having to lunge across his body. Look at his arms, filling the space between himself and Adebayo as he takes his eyes off him to watch Nunn. Look at how low he keeps his hips, so that he can move with the action but still spring upward after Nunn has made his choice. Look how suddenly he transforms what looks like an easy point-blank finish at the point when Nunn begins gathering the ball into just a desperately hopeless, doomed punt of a shot a fraction of a second later.
This is around when I started thinking about Bill Russell. That was the handy comparison when Davis entered the NBA and during the first few seasons of his career, that if he fulfilled his potential he could be the evolutionary descendant of the legendary Boston Celtics big man widely regarded as perhaps the greatest defensive player in league history. The gently backhanded element of this comparison was the implication that, like Russell, Davis could be a good enough defender to transform a franchise despite lacking the skills or disposition to be an efficient high-volume scorer. As Davis eventually did, in fact, become one of the most gifted scoring big men in the league, and as he also played far beneath his abilities as a defender for whole entire seasons of his early career, and as, unlike Russell’s, his teams never met with much sustained success prior to this season, those comparisons mostly died away.
Nothing in particular replaced them. If Davis wasn’t like Russell, well, he also wasn’t much like anybody else. You could capture something abstract about Davis’s profound ability to shape a game on both offense and defense by likening him to Tim Duncan, and people have, but that’s so inadequate. Even at his athletic peak Duncan’s greatness tended to be of an aggregate sort, more apparent the farther back you pulled. In a single possession Duncan was always in the right place, always doing the smart thing, always channeling the action toward his team’s advantage; over a game he went plus-20, more-or-less quietly filled the box score at both ends of the court, and his team won; over the course of a season he produced sterling numbers with freakish consistency under all circumstances on a team that surpassed 50 wins and contended for a championship; over the course of a career he was one of the greatest players in league history. But in a career defined by an unparalleled capacity to do the right thing, Duncan pretty much never did the impossible. Anthony Davis is the impossible.
In my lifetime, I’ve never seen an individual player affect playoff game and series outcomes on defense the way Davis did in this postseason. Even that seems like a silly, stiff, sterile understatement. He didn’t “affect playoff game and series outcomes on defense.” He swallowed very good NBA offenses alive. Miami scored points at a dizzying clip in their series against the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics. Those are very good defensive teams; by the numbers, the Bucks were the best defensive team in the league this season, and Giannis Antetokounmpo won the DPOY award. Against the Lakers, the Heat offense lapsed out of all function for long and terrifying stretches, for the simple reason that Davis, alone, had made the paint utterly inaccessible, even while chasing smaller players like Jimmy Butler around farther out on the floor. But by the time he unmade Miami’s offense, he’d already done it to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Houston Rockets, and the Denver Nuggets.
This took Duncan-like being-in-the-right-place, of course. But it also involved Davis just leaping across wide expanses of hardwood and erasing shots he had no business even contesting, snatching away pocket bounce-passes a man his size should not even be able to get his hands close to, gobbling up smaller and quicker ball-handlers on switches. It involved, as in the GIF above, him defending actions designed to force a binary choice, and obliterating both options. It involved whole games in which there simply was no way for opposing teams to approach league-average offensive efficiency while he was on the floor. It involved him making opposing teams—not individual players, whole teams—look like small and overmatched children.
The point here isn’t to relitigate Antetokounmpo’s DPOY, which strictly speaking is not meant to settle the question of who is the sport’s best defensive player so much as to reward whoever put together the best defensive performance over the course of the full regular season. Nor is it to bicker over LeBron James’s Finals MVP, if only for the simple reason that that’s not worth caring about. This Los Angeles championship run doubled as an emphatic announcement that, awards aside, Anthony Davis is the best and most extraordinary defender in the world right now. He’s good enough at that end of the floor that it seems like some kind of obscene afterthought to mention that he also scored 25 points a game in these Finals, made 19 three-pointers in six games, and hit 94 percent of his free throws. What in the absolute hell will anyone ever do about that.