Sports Pulse: Jeff Zillgitt on who he thinks will make it to the NBA Finals this season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Before they walk off the court, Los Angeles Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis make sure they embrace each other first. They walk together to the team bus following practices and games. And they constantly tease each other.
It hardly seems surprising that James and Davis have made the Lakers thrive.
The Lakers finished with a 116-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday in Game 3 of their first-round series for a familiar reason. James excelled as a scorer (38 points), rebounder (12), and playmaker (eight assists). Davis shined as a post-up player (29 points), defender (11 boards) and facilitator (eight assists).
But forget just on the court: how have James and Davis complemented each other so well with their personalities?
“You got no choice, to be honest,” Davis said, chuckling. “We like to work. We like to win. But off the court, we’re just two guys who like to have fun.”
James initially sought this alliance for basketball reasons. Before he eventually missed the NBA playoffs for the first time in 13 years in 2019, James publicly vouched for the Lakers to acquire Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans prior to that season’s trade deadline.
While that did not work, the Lakers landed Davis instead in the offseason by dealing parts of their young core (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart) and a handful of draft picks.
Though the two are Klutch clients, James said he did not know Davis closely before they become teammates. Once Davis arrived in Los Angeles, though, James felt a connection instantly. The two bonded over Xbox games, “Taco Tuesday” and inside jokes.
More importantly, James realized that he and Davis shared mutual values.
“We’re not trying to be nobody else but our own identity, our own self,” James said. “When you know yourself and when you’re confident in what you do both on and off the floor and you know what you represent, then there’s no ego. We want both of us to succeed, both on and off the floor. We want our families to be happy. We want each other to try to be as happy as possible. There’s no ego, so, when you’re able to figure that out in life – who you are and what you stand for, then, nothing else matters.”
For the Lakers, though, how the two function on the court does matter.
Luckily, the team’s two All-Stars complement each other in so many ways. James initiates the offense, while Davis often finishes. Davis organizes the defense, while James helps out. James commands the media spotlight, while Davis apathetically defers. The two throw digs at each other, and the recipient laughs with good grace.
“That’s been one of our blessings this year. I think they just both have a great way about them,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “They’re both easy-going, both like to laugh and have fun. They both care about the game the same way. It’s one of those things that has worked out in our favor.”
Because of that dynamic between James and Davis, things turned out in the Lakers’ favor in a Game 3 win over Portland that extended their series lead to 2-1.
With Portland’s energy depleting and the Lakers appearing inclined to ramp up their intensity, James set the tone with his aggressiveness. He attacked the basket with relentlessness. He directed teammates on where to cut. He rewarded open teammates, and ignored ones he did not trust.
Despite missing 13 foul shots, the Lakers trailed the Blazers only by four points at halftime (57-53) because of James’ dominance (22 points on 7-of-9 shooting).
“We need him to play like that all the time. It’s tough to stop,” Davis said of James. “It’s fun for us and he still makes the right plays.”
Remembering Kobe: Mamba would have turned 42 on Sunday
Worth the risk?: Should the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic play in Game 4 against Clippers?
It is not fun to see James do all the work, though.
Davis’ first field goal came with less than five minutes left in the first half and he went 4-of-9 from the free-throw line. So at halftime, Davis gave James a message.
“I wanted to take some of the pressure off of him,” Davis said. “I didn’t want him to just carry the team the entire time.”
James still carried the team. Until he sat out at the 4:35 mark of the third quarter, James ran the offense on almost every possession. But Davis matched James’ aggressiveness as the two combined for 20 points and seven assists. When James wasn’t canning open 3-pointers (2-of-3) or drawing trips to the free-throw line (3-of-3), Davis was simply attacking the basket from the block (5-of-8), either through play calls or his own will. Davis did not need to call for the ball. James found Davis if he was open. If not, James looked to score.
“We definitely work well together,” James said. “For all the questions going into the season of if myself and AD can work well together, I think we’ve shown that throughout the course of the season. But we just try to work off of one another.”
A similar dynamic happened leading into Game 2. Davis became self critical following the Lakers’ Game 1 loss after finishing his 28-point performance with only two points in the fourth quarter. James, who has won three NBA titles in nine Finals appearances, told him not to make a big deal out of one game.
Afterwards, James had no need to try to boost his spirits during Davis’ pre-game routine.
No wonder Vogel observed that James relates to Davis “like a big brother” filled with positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Like a little brother, Davis does not necessarily regale James with advice
“There’s nothing I can say that he hasn’t heard or seen already. My job’s just to kind of be there,” Davis said. “If he wants to talk about something, I’m there, but in the game he’s so locked in. I’ll be talking to him sometimes and he just stares straight ahead. I’ll be like, ‘All right he heard me I’ll just leave him alone.’ But I still say what I got say. Even if he doesn’t respond, I know he’s listening.”
James is also observing. It did not take him long to realize he would enjoy playing with Davis for reasons beyond his skills.
“You always hear this term like there’s ‘good vibes.’ But I truly can sense it,” James said. “It was very organic. It’s nothing pushed or rushed or whatever the case may be. We just let it happen. We let the relationship happen organically and just went on with it over the course of this whole year.”