As streamers fall to the court in the aftermath of the Lakers snapping their 3 game losing streak by getting a win vs. a red hot Nuggets team, these are the words Anthony Davis says to KCP as they bring their heads together on the sideline. It’s a message to a teammate, but, I’d imagine, also one to himself. It’s both words meant to reassure at a time where the team desperately needs it and ones that reflect a certain confidence, or even arrogance by refocusing this team’s goals — and his role in achieving them — back into the center of the frame.
Davis, after several games of not looking like himself, finally broke out of his funk and reminded everyone of how special he can be on both ends of the floor when he’s engaged and feeling healthy. In the final minute of a game the Nuggets threatened to win after being down double digits, Davis hit a big basket in the paint to put his team up four and then, on the Nuggets final offensive possession, he closed out from the paint to the 3-point line to block a shot that would have brought Denver within a single point, ultimately recovering the loose ball and dribbling out the clock to seal the win.
AD finished the night with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. He moved well, played with good activity level, regained his some of his previously absent defensive timing, and (as the cameras showed us) played through some general tightness in his calf to play his best game since returning from injury. AD wasn’t quite back to full form, but it’s as close as he’s been since his 9-week layoff and, if we’re being honest, a level he’s only really hit a handful of times in this wackily compressed bloodsport kumite of an NBA campaign.
Whether AD’s proclamation to his teammate is accurate or not remains to be seen, but I am encouraged. Davis has always been a player who knows what going up a level entails. He’s not been to the playoffs many times in his career, but in every postseason he’s participated he has elevated his game to be a better player than he was during the regular season — which, considering his stature in this league, is a real achievement. Lakers fans saw this firsthand with last season’s ridiculous 1st Team All-NBA and All-Defense regular season that he somehow managed to top with a complete demolition of opponents during the team’s push to winning the title.
Coming off the level he’d shown since his return, what the Nuggets game also did was remind us of what is possible. Make no mistake, the Lakers were in a bad place. Forget the standings and the potential of participating in the play-in game, this team no longer resembled the group that was favored to win the title just 5 months ago. They didn’t look it on the court in their play, but also they did not look like it mentally. There was no urgency, no sense of togetherness. They were disparate pieces trying to summon something that just kept eluding them. Like a car with a bad starter, the ignition only clicked and never turned over to get the engine revving.
Anthony Davis, even at the level he showed vs. the Nuggets (to say nothing of the one we know he can reach based on last season’s run) can change that. He is the algorithm that unlocks the code for accessing the best these Lakers can offer. Make no mistake, LeBron James is the team’s best player and, if not the best player in the game, in the conversation for that. But, in the construction of this team, his greatness is the Lakers floor; he gets you to a baseline of competence and gives you a path towards competing at the highest level.
Alternatively, Anthony Davis’ greatness is the team’s ceiling; he is the player who, when paired with LeBron, gives you the path towards dominating any and all comers. Davis is the cheat code who makes your small-ball lineup too small and your big lineups to slow. He is the one who defends other team’s bigs as a primary assignment, switches onto their smalls in a pinch, and can be deployed onto their power wings in order to give everyone else a more advantageous matchup or to put them into more ideal help situations. His versatility, on both sides of the ball, at his size makes other teams adjust to him — usually unsuccessfully.
The version of Davis we saw vs. the Nuggets, then, is somewhat of a proof of life. It’s affirmation that the thing it was fair to wonder was still there, actually is. The next step is accessing that game after game, but I’ll take what we got on Monday night and let it wash over me for a bit longer. The Lakers play again on Thursday, but in the mean time, I’ll feel a bit better because the player I was waiting to return not only told us, but showed us on Monday that he’s back.