Anthony Davis had his worst game of the playoffs on Sunday. He was nearly invisible on offense and failed to make an impact on defense. The Lakers might have won regardless had enough else gone right, but the team was generally sloppy and inattentive on both ends of the floor, resulting in their first loss of the NBA Finals.
There was a narrative after the game that foul trouble limited Davis’ aggression, but that leaves Davis off the hook for playing poorly regardless. There were stretches where it was noticeable that Davis was wary of picking up another foul (notably in the second quarter before Davis picked up his third), but there were much longer periods where Davis simply didn’t bring the fight.
It started from the jump, when the Heat made it a priority to deny Davis from even getting the ball. There were possessions where Davis was running from side to side trying to shake Jae Crowder, but the 6’6 Miami forward successfully fronted him and prevented easy entry passes. Meanwhile, Meyers Leonard was keeping an eye on Davis instead of Dwight Howard to provide back-up if Davis got the ball, and Jimmy Butler also brought the double on occasion to keep Davis from getting comfortable.
The Lakers took advantage of one of those possessions by throwing a lob to Howard behind Leonard, but otherwise, they committed three turnovers on attempted entries into Davis, or as Davis was trying to make his first move. These all came before Davis’ first foul, which was another turnover.
“[Miami] fronted the post, forced us to make difficult post entry passes,” Frank Vogel said after practice Monday. “So a lot of it was their defense, them being active with their hands. This is what they’re great at, and we didn’t handle it well enough.”
Davis wasn’t lacking offensive aggression early. If anything, he was willingly putting himself in compromising positions. But Miami made an adjustment to pressure his catches, similar to what Houston and Toronto did during the regular season, and Davis couldn’t figure it out. Davis eventually adapted to the Rockets’ defense, so there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this won’t be a long-term problem, but he needs to move more quickly rather than letting the double come, and face up instead of backing down in the post.
There are ways for Davis to still be impactful if his touches are limited. He can draw a defender out for Howard to get lobs. He can get offensive rebounds, which is easier when the Lakers don’t give the ball away. Davis also sets good screens; he had one in the first that allowed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to turn the corner and hit Danny Green for a corner three that, alas, did not get converted.
In the second quarter, Davis didn’t really make an effort to get into the paint, despite playing with bench units that space the floor. Other than one lob from Rajon Rondo, his touches are all on the perimeter. Some of the blame falls on Rondo, who made curious decisions like running a pick-and-roll with Davis and then flowing into a step-back three.
But Davis is also culpable. He popped instead of rolling on another high screen, and then sort of escaped from the play while Rondo turned the ball over on a pass to Kyle Kuzma. On another possession, Davis had Crowder defending him and his entire side of the floor open, but didn’t face up. Davis’ attempted only one drive in four minutes despite James not being on the floor. Even though that play resulted in a charge, it’s the kind of call that could have gone either way, and had Davis been the aggressor throughout, he might have earned the benefit of the doubt from the referees.
Interestingly, Davis’ best stretch actually came in the third quarter after he picked up his fourth foul. Instead of sending him to the bench, Vogel trusted Davis to find a rhythm, and he did. Davis had a beautiful floater to bring the Lakers within 68-59 after Miami had stretched the lead to 14. He ran more pick-and-roll with Rondo to get his favorite midrange jumpers, and calmly posted up Andre Iguodala, using his size advantage to shoot over the top. He had his lone putback, a monster dunk in transition after Alex Caruso missed a well-contested lay-up, and he even did some playmaking in the halfcourt.
That’s what made it so jarring when Davis reverted to being passing in the fourth. His primary contribution was clearing the lane for James to attack the basket. He only had four fouls at this point, so he could afford to pick up one more, but still did little to involve himself in the offense. Most possessions ended with him in the corner as some other action unfolded. Davis only got one shot attempt, when he established good position against Kelly Olynyk in the post but missed a short jumper.
The fact that Davis was at his best when his foul situation was most tenuous puts the onus for his poor performance squarely on Davis, not his foul trouble. Yes, the Heat changed up their defense, like with fronting the post and with putting Iguodala on the Davis so that they could switch pick-and-rolls, but they didn’t even have to try that hard in the fourth quarter. Davis needed to make a better effort to affect the game rather than letting Miami take him out.
So what can Davis do better, and what can the Lakers do to put him in better spots to succeed? One way to get him more involved might involve a defensive substitution from the Lakers. Davis has been mostly out of the action on that end, unable to help for fear of leaving Olynyk on the perimeter. Putting Davis on a less threatening shooter, like Iguodala in the bench lineups, would allow him to help at the rim. Davis is also the team’s best perimeter defender, so having him guard Butler and then refusing to switch might be a better use of his talents. Butler was straight up smothered by Davis, or at least spooked, on multiple occasions.
The Lakers were outscored by 26 points with Davis on the floor. They didn’t lose the game because foul trouble kept Davis on the bench; they lost because Davis wasn’t good enough when he was playing. He let himself get schemed away from the basket on both sides of the ball and became a bystander rather than an active participant.
Up 2-0, the Lakers had a cushion and could withstand a bad Davis game. That luxury no longer exists. Davis was comparing himself to Shaquille O’Neal not two days ago, and he’ll have to rediscover that level of dominance for L.A. to regain control of this series.