Can Anthony Davis Just Do That, Like, Every Game?

You never know when you’ll be treated to a fully armed and operational Anthony Davis. Sometimes this man takes the court and is Godzilla And-One, and sometimes his knee has the stomach flu. You never know which Davis you’re going to get. Unfortunately for the increasingly adorable Indiana Pacers, the Lakers got Peak Davis on a night when his team, and the NBA’s marketing department, needed him the most.

If you’re just joining us from Football Land (raises hand), last night was the first-ever NBA Cup final, the deciding game of a new In-Season Tournament that, the broadcast booth assured me, was a huge hit not only with players and fans, but also people who wanted to tune into the Kevin Hart alt-cast on ESPN2 (does not raise hand this time). The Pacers and the Lakers met in Las Vegas, on a court whose design served as a final boss for my eyesight. All the stars (Mark Davis) were in attendance. At stake was a cool new trophy, a $500,000 bonus per winning player, and gold medals just to round out the “office Christmas gift exchange” mood of this whole affair.

[Mike Breen voice] But don’t tell the players this game was merely an exhibition. While the first three quarters of this game were nearly as unsightly as the Superman bedspread of a court that it was played on, the NBA Cup final finally took on a playoff sheen in the fourth quarter.

Right up until then, this had been a hump game for the Pacers: one of those nights where one team remains behind by an easily surmountable margin all the way through, but can’t ever manage to take the lead. When Indiana pulled to within three early in the fourth, it seemed like they might finally get over that hump. They had stayed tight with the Lakers by getting to the foul line over and over again, much to the chagrin of analysts Doc Rivers and Doris Burke. Now, I thought, Indiana might start making actual baskets, and maybe even win the game. I’ve learned, or just decided, to be skeptical of the late-stage Bron Lakers, and wanted to believe that a frisky young team like the Pacers could steal a game simply by being more motivated and annoying.

But it turned out that Davis, even while hampered by a moody groin muscle, still had a good amount of his 2020 vintage within him.

This was a game where made threes were the stuff of rumor, and the Lakers did their damage almost exclusively from inside the paint. LeBron James, seeking his elusive 5.25th championship ring, spent this tournament seemingly more invested in its legitimacy than even Adam Silver. He obeyed his thirst by engaging Bulldozer Mode and banging in 24 hard-fought points. But it was AD, looming over the court like a colossus, who wore down the Pacers so badly that every endgame basket for them felt like more work than building a fucking house. Everything just got too difficult, and a 13-0 Lakers run in the back half of the fourth that made the final score academic.

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Davis’ whopper of a stat line—41 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, four blocks—somehow fails to convey his dominance. As long as he was on the court, and it was a lonnnnnnng time (41 minutes!), Davis looked two feet taller than everyone on the Pacers. He snagged every board, redirected every Pacers set play, and even made the bulk of his free throws. He was the house, and Indiana was the rube getting off a Delta flight with a wad of hundreds and the naiveté to match. This was not a fun game to watch, by any means, but Davis was kind enough to gift it a timeless performance that made it feel Genuinely Important.

The question, as always, is how many games like this AD has left in him, and when he’ll be available to break them out. Because while last night proved that this man can still carry a team when he’s up for it, it also may have proved that the Lakers—currently sitting at fifth in a brutal Western Conference—will need him do so if they want to win the (postseason) playoff games that really count. I remain skeptical. But I saw enough out of Anthony Davis last night to make me hope that I’m dead wrong.

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