The most recent list he made — the NBA’s top-75 players of all time — was met with groans and frustration considering he spends more time leaving you wanting than he does marveling you and dominating.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more impactful, devastating performer in these playoffs on both ends of the floor.
At the intersection of production and potential, there he was in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal series for the Los Angeles Lakers against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
His historic night of 30 points, 23 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks powered the Lakers into stealing home-court advantage with a 117-112 win at the Chase Center on Tuesday night.
The 30-20 night put him in company with Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as the only Lakers to pull off the feat in postseason history, but his effect was even greater than the gaudy numbers.
The Warriors weren’t quite flinching when venturing into Davis’ neighborhood — almost acting as if they were playing against Domantas Sabonis for an eighth game. Not only was Davis lurking, but the Lakers were always around in the paint and elsewhere, blocking 10 shots and altering many others with their superior length and size.
If the Lakers can get this version of Davis, he’s extending everything they have going. The personnel moves that elevated the Lakers from the bottom of the West to this point were all made with a healthy Davis in mind, and the pieces fit perfectly when they needed to late.
He contested everything on the perimeter in addition to shutting down the paint. He gave the Lakers the luxury of doubling them up on points in the paint, and being about to withstand another Kevon Looney 20-plus-rebound game.
But it wasn’t a demoralizing, air-sucking night from Looney, in part because Davis was a vortex on both ends. He played the entire second half and finished with 44 minutes — courtesy of having a couple extra days’ rest while the Warriors were taken to the limit by Sacramento.
There’s always the question if his body can hold up with the workload, minutes (43 Tuesday) and going every other day, but the Lakers feel comfortable riding him as long as he’s upright.
“He’s one of the few guys that can defend laterally and vertically,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “By that I mean he can get down in the stands and move his feet, keep a guard in front of him, force a tough, contested shot.
“I knew watching him during his days in New Orleans, watching him in the bubble, he’s an elite defender.”
The 2020 bubble was where Davis’ reputation took its biggest boost. Having four months off and no travel in Orlando produced Davis’ greatest moments as a Laker, but these circumstances are far different and the stakes seemingly higher.
Ham was brought in to maximize the rest of LeBron James’ prime and hopefully have an upright Davis for longer than short stretches. And while Davis’ regular season injuries have prevented him from sitting firmly in those top-five conversations he’d always had automatic entry into until recently, his play this season was as consistent as it’s been since his first year as a Laker.
“He had some monster performances that year he was with New Orleans,” Ham said. “All of that’s in the past. He’s doing exactly what I anticipated him to do. He’s playing like the top-five NBA player that he is.”
This series was billed as LeBron James versus Stephen Curry, and everything rational says it should be. They’re the two faces of the league, the most decorated champions since Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and they’ll rightfully take up so much oxygen in the room and on the floor.
And while the game had more than its share of thrilling moments that if duplicated could make for a seven-game classic, with the Warriors producing a desperate comeback in the last four minutes to have a chance to tie with less than 10 seconds remaining, it felt like Davis was in control of the game the whole way.
“The guys gave the ball to me in the right spots,” Davis said. “A lot of it came out of pick-and-roll, post-ups, some offensive rebounds. Just being aggressive when I do catch, looking to score, looking to [make the play] to the other guys.”
He didn’t seem too bothered by defensive wizard Draymond Green or Looney, and there wasn’t much opposition to the Lakers running things through Davis, as he settled things down after the Warriors took an early lead.
It’s likely what James envisioned when he and Davis partnered together, James finding yet another superstar to pair with and try to build and maintain a super-team. This game, in this atmosphere, seemed to illustrate what happens when Davis is exhibiting maximum focus and force.
He wasn’t in two places at once, but you had to be aware of where he was at all times, especially considering the Warriors just finished their series with the Kings 48 hours prior, and wanted to put their track shoes on in ways they couldn’t in Round 1.
“He’s everything for us defensively,” Dennis Schröder said. “He’s taken it serious, doing everything for us and he’s the anchor.”
Even Curry, coming off the magical 50-point Game 7, had his share of attempts stymied by Davis and once by James.
“It’s kind of deceiving,” Curry said. “You feel like you have a good look to get over the top and [Davis] gets a fingertip on it. You’ve got to respect it. Like, that’s how he makes an impact on that end of the floor and [you] can’t be stubborn thinking you can just keep going in there.”
Jordan Poole's look from deep for the potential game-tying shot in the final seconds.
Chuck: "I don't like that shot at all."pic.twitter.com/crfXWltdc9
— Ball Don’t Lie (@Balldontlie) May 3, 2023
It’s impossible to say Jordan Poole’s extra-long shot, that could’ve tied the game with 9.7 seconds left, had Davis’ fingerprints on it, but it’s not a stretch to consider even Poole’s irrational confidence had to be affected considering all the ways the Lakers were bothering them in Game 1.
Poole broke out of his Kings-series slump by hitting six 3s, and his coach and teammates backed his shot selection after the game, compared to him finding a way to hit Curry somewhere, anywhere on the floor.
Curry and Klay Thompson led the Warriors with 27 and 25 points, respectively, but neither found much room outside the 3-point line. Those two joined Poole in hitting six 3s and the Warriors got up 53 attempts, shooting 39.6%.
That’s all well and good, but the Warriors as a team shot just 40.6% and so much of that was Davis’ presence — along with Jarred Vanderbilt working to distract Curry and D’Angelo Russell catching fire in the third to give the Lakers control.
Russell and Schröder each scored 19, found money in a way. But holding James to 22 points shouldn’t be something the Warriors should expect to count on as the series progresses.
James will have his moments, he’ll summon his remaining greatness and have an effect on this series. But if Davis continues to exert himself this way, it could be a problem the champions have no answer for.