You don't want to catch Anthony Davis after a bad game.
Following one of the worst performances of his playoff career in a Game 3 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, Davis was incredible in a 102-96 Game 4 win on Tuesday, which left the Los Angeles Lakers one win away from the most unique NBA title in history. The performance continued a troublesome tradition for the Lakers opponents, where Davis quickly brushes off bad games to greatly impact the next.
In the Lakers' first game of the NBA restart, Davis was held to 14 points on 2-of-7 shooting in a loss to the Toronto Raptors. The next game, he torched the Utah Jazz for 42 points and 12 rebounds. A week later he put up a 3-for-14, 8-point dud against the Indiana Pacers which, at the time, exacerbated the chatter that the Lakers weren't the same team we saw before the hiatus. He followed that up with 27 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in a win over the Denver Nuggets to close out the seeding schedule.
We don't have any recent postseason examples because, frankly, Davis hadn't had a bad game in the playoffs until Game 3, but those wondering how he would react in an NBA Finals setting received their answer on Tuesday. If you missed the game and just saw the stat line -- 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists -- you might think that Davis had another subpar performance compared to his lofty standards. But that couldn't be further from the truth, as Davis was essential to a Lakers win that hinged on a few key possessions on both ends of the court.
LeBron James stressed the importance of Game 4 in a text to teammates before the game, but there was no rah-rah speech from Lakers coach Frank Vogel uttered in Davis' direction following his rough Game 3. He knew his star would show up when they needed him.
"You don't have to say anything to Anthony Davis. He wants this more than anything," Vogel said after Game 4. "Obviously he's a great player capable of imposing his will on the game on both ends of the floor. You saw what he did tonight defensively, and obviously that big three helped seal it, but was great on both ends all night."
Let's start with defense, where Davis was an absolute menace from the opening tip. He's such a talented offensive player that we sometimes forget that Davis is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA, and the depth and versatility of his ability were impossible to ignore in Game 4. In addition to having to contend with the return of Bam Adebayo, Davis started off the night by guarding Jimmy Butler, fresh off of one of the best offensive Finals playoff performances we've ever seen. Davis helped set the defensive tone in the Heat's first non-transition possession of the game, using his length to take away Butler's passing lanes, then offering timely help on Duncan Robinson that led to a shot clock violation.
Butler finished with 22 points and shot just 3-for-12 with three turnovers after the first quarter.
Davis also registered four huge blocks, coming from behind to take away layups for Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn, and throughout the night he frightened Heat drivers who occasionally passed up point-blank opportunities at the rim because Davis was in the vicinity. Miami fans were likely frustrated that players were kicking out from under the hoop, but those looks aren't as open as they seem when Davis is lurking. Watch here as Davis fights through Robinson's screen to recover and force Butler to nearly turn the ball over trying to kick it out to the corner rather than challenging Davis.
"We hold each other to a standard that no one else can hold us to, and that's what it's all about. He challenges me every night, I challenge him every night, doesn't matter if the ball is going in," James said of Davis after Game 4. "We have to do things to help our team win -- defensive end, offensive end. He did that tonight. He was spectacular, taking the challenge on Jimmy to start and then any time he got switched onto a guard, just containing them, getting blocked shots, giving us extra possessions offensively."
As opposed to Game 3, when he seemed utterly confounded and frustrated by Alex Caruso, who buried the 3., Davis was much more poised and patient offensively on Tuesday, taking what the defense gave him early without forcing the issue. Just before the end of the first half, Davis passed up a good look at a deep 3-pointer and instead dribbled into the post where he drew three defenders. He kept his composure and fired a perfect cross-court pass to
Davis got more aggressive in the second half, when he scored 14 of his 22 points and earned all four of his free throw attempts. And then of course there was the dagger 3-pointer that gave the Lakers an insurmountable three-possession lead with just under 40 seconds left to play.
The ecstatic reaction from both Davis and James shows you how big the shot was emotionally for a team looking to put away an opponent with a penchant for late comebacks. While his game-winning, buzzer-beater in the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets helped win that series for the Lakers, this shot puts Davis one step closer to his first NBA title, which they'll get their first crack at in Friday's Game 5.
But don't let the big shot overshadow what Davis did all night. His play on both ends won the game for the Lakers, even if he didn't put up the gaudy numbers we're accustomed to seeing. It was one of his best games of the playoffs, even more impressive since it immediately followed one of his worst.
"We feel like we got bullied [in Game 3]. We feel like we got outworked. They were more scrappier than us, and we didn't really like that. We saw it on film. They were doing whatever they wanted, especially Jimmy," Davis said after Game 4. "Like I said, we didn't like it. So we wanted to come out to be demanding on the defensive end, demanding on the offensive end, playing with great battle on the floor, loose balls, talking, being scrappy. We were able to do that tonight. If we play like that every game, you know, especially next game, then we're going to become champions."