As Anthony Davis writhed around on the floor of the Target Center in the 3rd quarter of Friday’s win over the Timberwolves, I resigned myself to the fact that the Lakers season might have just functionally ended. Davis, after stepping on the foot of teammate Wenyen Gabriel, rolled his ankle and immediately collapsed to the court while grabbing at his foot.
This is it, I thought. My brain then led to the dark place... Davis would go to the locker room, we’d get an update from Mike Trudell that he was out for the rest of the game, shortly after that we’d get a Woj tweet saying that Davis would soon receive X-rays and an MRI, and assuming the same sort of injury luck the team has had all year, the Lakers season, for all intents and purposes, would be over.
Of course, it wasn’t over. AD’s night wasn’t even finished. Not by a long shot.
Davis, after being tended to by the medical team during the ensuing timeout, stayed in the game. And from that point forward, he dominated, scoring 19 more points to lead the Lakers to their most important win of the season. Davis finished the game with 38 points, 17 rebounds, and nearly 20 thousand stolen souls of a Timberwolves fanbase that began the game as animated as you’ll find a regular season crowd — only to be crestfallen by the time AD was finished.
Anthony Davis is that dude. As if we actually needed the reminder. Actually, some probably do.
In the three seasons since the Lakers won the championship in the 2019-20 season, it’s been a bit of a tough go for AD. Injuries have limited him to too few games, including the 2020-21 playoffs where his season was cut short halfway through a first round in which the Lakers were poised to at least give the Suns a difficult series, but more than likely win while sitting on a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 in Los Angeles when AD went down.
Because of these injuries, Davis has been one of the more maligned truly great players in the league. Davis’ ability to stay healthy was too often conflated with his basketball ability, his reputation suffering because of how his reliability to stay healthy morphed into a discussion of his reliability when actually healthy.
Coming off a title season in which real arguments could be made for him being one of the two or three best players in the world, Davis became someone who was no longer in the discussion of even the NBA’s best big men, surpassed by Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid as cornerstone big men to be selected in front of him as players you would want to build a franchise around. And maybe that’s still true. Jokic has won two MVP awards, and Embiid could join him as a winner this season. Both are legitimately great and deserve their praise.
Davis, though, is also great. And, even in another season that has been dampened by injuries, he is showing that he belongs in the conversation as one of the game’s best players again.
After having a steady, but not necessarily spectacular first month in his return from injury in late January, Davis again resembles the player who terrorized opponents in the first two months of the season. In March, AD posted averages of 27.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.6 blocks a game while hitting 58.5% of his shots from the field. In the 13 games he played in the month, the Lakers went 9-4, including a 7-3 record in the games LeBron James didn’t play.
Then, in his first game in April, AD dropped 40 points on the helpless Rockets, shish-kabob’ing them into submission with paint attacks for layups and dunks, dashing into the defense’s gaps for runners, and stepping back for mid-range jumpers. It all culminated with Davis winning Western Conference Player of the Week, a well-deserved honor that, honestly, should also be given to him for his full month of March (but I digress).
The best part of Davis’ play is that everyone associated with the team understands exactly what he’s capable of and is pushing the action towards him so he could carry them forward. In the win over the Timberwolves, the Lakers went to AD possession after possession down the stretch, and he delivered multiple big baskets to seal the win. After the game, Darvin Ham spoke about what AD means to this team and how for them to get where they’re going, it’s going to be him who leads them there:
“Everyone knows in order for us to be at the highest level and playing at the highest level, it all starts with AD....We have a team that can make some things happen, but you got to have that one pivotal force that’s leading the charge and, in our case, with this particular team here in the moment, it’s AD. When he comes out and he’s aggressive and we’re feeding him and he’s not settling and he’s putting pressure on the paint, putting pressure on the rim, we find ourselves having a lot of success. So, we just have to make sure he’s okay first and foremost health wise, but also to know what the formula is. When he’s going and when he’s cooking, everyone gets to eat.”
When the Lakers won the championship three seasons ago, LeBron was the Finals MVP and the orchestrator of the team’s attack, but it was Davis who was the critical matchup buster that elevated the team to the heights they ultimately reached. To quick and skilled for traditional centers and too big and forceful for small-ball lineups, Davis dominated every round by shapeshifting to whatever his team needed him to be.
This season’s Davis, as a full-time center, has been much more of the forceful finisher whose hunger to score in the paint has had him relying less on his jump shot and perimeter play. That stylistic shift hasn’t dampened his dominance though, and instead has only shown that he’ll just as easily make defenses adjust to him as he once adjusted to them by altering his style and approach.
Without this version of AD, I couldn’t tell you exactly where the Lakers would be, but I know it wouldn’t be where they are now, a team that can control its own destiny to be a top-6 seed in the West and looking like a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs should they get there.
And for that, we should all be thankful.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.