After spending the bulk of the first three quarters of Tuesday night’s Game 2 missing three-pointers, the Phoenix Suns finally started to convert. A 15-point Lakers lead evaporated quickly in the fourth as the younger, seemingly hungrier Suns outworked their older counterparts to the delight of their 15,000 shrieking fans. Cameron Payne was knifing into the lane at will, a cadre of wing defenders denied a notably laboring LeBron James access to any usable space, and the Lakers needed an out-of-nowhere Marc Gasol three to keep pace. The energy differential seemed insurmountable. James had no lift on his jumper. The “BEAT L.A.” chants picked up steam. And then Anthony Davis locked in and won the Lakers the game.
Davis was the goat (bad kind) of the Lakers’ stinky Game 1 loss, shooting 5-of-16, logging a minus-18, and, most concerningly, being thoroughly outplayed by playoff first-timer DeAndre Ayton. He told reporters after the game, “This is on me. I take full responsibility, for sure. We’ll be better Game 2.” Davis absolutely delivered on that promise. He finished with a game-high 34 points (on 18-of-21 free-throw shooting), 10 boards, seven assist, and three blocks, one of which directly sparked the Lakers’ brutal game-ending run. On the possession below, Davis rotated beautifully throughout, though the Suns got what they wanted, with little Alex Caruso pinned down in the post by Deandre Ayton. Davis was on Devin Booker and therefore unable to double-team too quickly, lest he leave Booker wide open. Ayton got the rock and hooked around Caruso only to get demolished by a second-perfect drop down from Davis.
After LeBron pried open a three-point edge with an absurd jumper, Davis broke the game open with a cool three-pointer and a pair of free throws. Great team defense would force the Suns into two straight critical turnovers, and all that was left for LeBron to do was formally end things with a three of his own. A one point Lakers edge at 3:13 turned into an insurmountable eight-point cushion, thanks largely to Davis taking over the game.
He will probably have to continue doing so if the Lakers are going to beat the Suns, or make it to the Finals, or somehow beat the Nets (probably) and repeat as champs, because LeBron James’s body is clearly not right. Though he has been characteristically heroic late in both of the team’s two wins this postseason, James does not appear to have that undeniable physical edge that he’s enjoyed over every other player in the NBA for a decade and a half. This Athletic blog does a nice job of illustrating how diminished he’s looked since returning from injury, as did Andrew Wiggins stuffing his shit during the play-in game.
LeBron’s brain is still intact, and his passing is still as good as it’s ever been, though success in the Lakers’ offensive scheme is premised around James and Davis both carrying huge loads and doing hero shit. Everyone else on the team is either good at defense, extremely large, or can shoot, and with the possible exception of Dennis Schröder at medium volume, every other player’s role is crafted around supporting the duo at the heart of the team. Without James reliably bulldozing his way into the lane, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is closer to the guy who scored exactly zero points in 31 minutes last night than the third best player on last year’s title winner.
Don’t just trust me, a guy who watches the TV, this is pretty much what Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the Game 2 win. “And we have a formula where those guys really carry the biggest scoring load, especially at crunch time, and an army of defenders and finishers around them, whether it’s finishing at the three-point line or at the rim,” he said. The job is a lot easier if Chris Paul’s injured shoulder is as compromised as it looked last night, since the team’s talented array of shooters won’t find nearly as many looks with Cameron Payne running the show, and the Lakers’ job on defense is significantly more simple without one of the best passers in the game around to punish poor rotations or inopportune switches. Doubling Devin Booker is so much easier if Payne is making the 4-on-3 decisions instead of Paul. The end of Game 2 showed that, as the Lakers finally matched Phoenix’s intensity for the final five minutes and absolutely clamped down on the Payne-Ayton actions that sparked the Suns’ comeback. Davis and James are two of the very best rovers in the game, and the freer they are to blow up plays, the more everything else fits around them.
Still, Phoenix is legit, and the Lakers are clearly uncomfortable playing at the frenetic pace Monty Williams’s squad smartly wants to push. They are well coached, disciplined, and they sprint around on defense with a Grizzlian verve. Even after this series, should they advance, James’s health is no guarantee. Davis must step into the void and keep the Lakers’ offense ticking. The team’s enviable gaggle of centers will allow him to do this without having to also bang with Ayton on every Suns possession, though he clearly outplayed the youngster last night (once again, 21 free throws) on his own. Nobody on this roster has played a home playoff game in Los Angeles yet, thanks to the bubble, and I can’t think of a better time for Davis to step into his expanded role than his home playoff debut.