Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Even with LeBron James on the court, there was no way anyone but Anthony Davis was taking the last shot in Sunday’s 105-103 Game 2 victory.
It was Davis who had stabilized the Los Angeles Lakers after the Denver Nuggets erased a 16-point lead in the second half. Leading into the final possession, it was Davis who had scored the Lakers’ last seven points in a mano-a-mano battle with Nikola Jokic, who had Denver’s last 12.
So when Lakers head coach Frank Vogel drew up an out-of-bounds play trailing by one with just over two seconds remaining, it was a Rajon Rondo inbound to Davis for a three-point look.
They executed it perfectly, and the Lakers turned what would have been a disappointing collapse into a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Rondo called it the biggest shot of Davis’ career, and Davis agreed.
“It’s for sure the biggest shot of my career,” Davis said after the game. “In L.A., I know the quote-unquote ‘pressure’ will be on us and on me. With everything that happened last year, and also playing alongside LeBron, I know he gets criticized more than any basketball player ever.”
In their first season as teammates, James has been helping Davis grow into those moments. They both pointed to the Lakers’ March 10 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the team’s last game before the 2019-20 season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That time, Davis missed an open three from the same spot that would have given the Lakers the win.
“He was doubting himself,” James recalls now. “And I was telling him, ‘You’re not going to make them all.’ But the belief in just taking it and living with the results is what it’s all about. And tonight was his moment to find a space and hunt the ball down.”
All along, the Lakers’ title run was going to go as Davis went. By the sheer number of core players they gave up last offseason to get him, they bet big that his lack of postseason success in seven seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans was due to the lack of a supporting cast, not to Davis somehow not being the kind of player capable of delivering in moments like the one he’s in now.
James has the playoff track record, but he, Davis and their shared agency, Klutch Sports, felt this pairing was the best chance to unlock Davis’ full capabilities and expand James’ championship window into the autumn of his career.
However anyone felt about the public manner in which they went about getting Davis to Los Angeles, they were right about just how good the two superstars could be together—and about the level to which Davis could jump while playing on a contending team.
“Those two carried each other throughout the game,” Vogel said, and on Sunday, it was James early and Davis late. James scored 20 points in the first half but shot just 2-of-9 in the second half, while Davis scored 22 of his 31 points after the break.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Against a Nuggets team whose identity is built on digging itself out of holes, both in games and over playoff series, the Lakers needed every one of those points from Davis. When Jokic backed him down several steps in the post for a late floater, moving him around as though he wasn’t there, Rondo told him: “He scored on you. Go get him back.”
That possession ended with a Jamal Murray block of a Danny Green jumper with 2.1 seconds remaining, and Vogel drew up the play for Davis. A defensive breakdown by the Nuggets led to a wide-open look for Davis on a perfect pass from Rondo.
The Lakers are now in full command of a series that easily could have been tied due to their offensive lapses throughout the second half. Time after time in the fourth quarter, Denver’s defense forced the Lakers’ shooters into bad contested shots late in the shot clock, which allowed the Nuggets to chip away at the lead and eventually come out on top going into that final timeout.
If Davis had missed, the story would have been the continued resilience of the Nuggets, who will never go away until—and if—the final buzzer sounds on their elimination.
But now, the Lakers are two wins away from the franchise’s first Finals appearance in 10 years. All because Davis hit the exact shot he’s wanted since the day he arrived.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.