Either way, Davis’s power play paid off in unforgettable fashion Sunday, when the all-star forward drained a buzzer-beating three-pointer to lift the Lakers past the Denver Nuggets, 105-103, in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Make no mistake, Davis saved the Lakers, who frittered away a 16-point lead, and bailed out James after his shaky play down the stretch. This was a game the Lakers deserved to lose for getting comfortable against a Nuggets team that reached the West finals because it excels at punishing opponents that get comfortable.
Yet Davis had other ideas, freeing himself from a lost Mason Plumlee on a baseline inbounds play with 2.1 seconds left to set up a gorgeous bounce pass from Rajon Rondo. Davis received the ball and never hesitated, pulling up into a three-pointer that was a carbon copy of one he hit three minutes earlier. Nikola Jokic scrambled to cover for Plumlee’s blunder, but the 6-foot-10 Davis rose and splashed the jumper as time expired, yelling “Kobe!” as he headed for a mosh pit near center court.
“It’s for sure the biggest shot of my career,” said Davis, who posted a game-high 31 points to go with nine rebounds and two assists. “When I left [New Orleans], I just wanted to be able to compete for a championship, and I know that moments like this comes with it — especially being in L.A., the biggest market in basketball.”
Coach Frank Vogel saluted the 27-year-old Davis’s fearlessness, calling the game-winner a “Mamba shot” because it was “a shot Kobe Bryant would hit.” James noted that Davis deserved extra credit because he had been willing to fire after missing a similar clutch shot in a March loss to the Brooklyn Nets, shortly before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA and forced it to restart at Disney World months later.
“It’s not about making a shot,” said James, who finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. “It’s about having a belief of just taking it and living with the result. … I wish we were playing at Staples. We miss our fans so much. [Davis’s shot] probably would have [blown] the roof off Staples Center.”
Indeed, Lakers fans wasted no time embracing Davis, who averaged 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists while earning all-NBA first-team honors and finishing second in voting for defensive player of the year. Life in the shotgun seat tripped up Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George and Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook this season, and it often comes with a full serving of pressure and only nibbles of credit. But on and off the court, Davis has been an ideal sidekick to James, comfortable ceding the spotlight when necessary and stepping forward when called upon.
“He’s arguably the best scorer in our game,” Rondo said.
There’s no debate that this was the best shot of Davis’s career: He is, after all, playing in the first Western Conference finals of his eight-year career after advancing past the first round just once with New Orleans. The Bryant comparison was also apt aesthetically: As Vogel noted, Davis came “off just flying to the wing like that, catch-and-shoot with the biggest game of our season on the line, nothing but net.”
Even so, there was another obvious comparison point: Kevin Durant’s clutch three-pointer over James in the 2017 Finals. That one was also a picture-perfect highlight, easily the biggest moment of Durant’s career to date. Durant’s late-game three-pointer delivered on the hype and expectations that accompanied his move to the Golden State Warriors. It also provided a final answer to questions that built up during years of head-to-head losses to James and seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder that ended without a title.
Durant’s shot ultimately paid off with a championship, and Davis’s could, too. The Lakers are just six wins away from Davis’s first title and James’s fourth. They are in total command, up 2-0 on the Nuggets, who have few defensive answers for either of the Lakers’ superstars. After six straight trips to the draft lottery, Los Angeles will treat James, Davis and Co. like conquering heroes if they return from the bubble with the franchise’s 17th championship.
One wonders, though, whether Davis, like Durant before him, could fall short of a universal embrace by basketball fans who believe trade requests and super teams erode competitive balance. Those voices accused Durant of embodying an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” ethos, and Davis is similarly exposed.
Defending Davis’s move to L.A. is as simple as this: He never would have been in position this season to hit his game-winner had he remained with New Orleans. Who can fault an individual — especially one as talented and nonchalant as Davis — for doing whatever it takes to reach his full potential?
Recent history suggests not everyone will be convinced by that explanation. James chafed many fans when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Durant’s spotless reputation took a major hit when he departed Oklahoma City for the Bay Area. Davis, who followed the same pragmatic path, might endure a similar backlash should the Lakers win the title.
It’s possible, though, that teaming up with James will convey one final benefit: a shield from the inevitable criticism, envy and resentment if L.A. proves triumphant.
“It’s not about the doubters or the naysayers or the people who are going to try to talk to you and slander you and bring you down every single day,” James said, taking pleasure in his well-honed, unapologetic worldview. “They have never been in the arena. They don’t understand. [Davis] wanted to be here. I’m happy he wanted to be here, because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have a moment like tonight. That’s what it’s all about. Anybody can talk from outside, but if they got into the ring or they got into the arena, probably 10 times out of 10 they would s--- their pants.”
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