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The Key To The Lakers-Warriors Series: Anthony Davis

All eyes will be on the Lakers and Warriors tonight as they face off for the first time in the playoffs since 1991. Steph Curry and LeBron James meet for the 5th time in the postseason, this time, much earlier than they’re both used to. Two of the biggest markets in the NBA will play host to arguably the most star-studded playoff series since… LeBron and Curry faced last time in the 2018 NBA Finals which also featured Kevin Durant. All eyes will be on the two all-time greats, re-igniting a rivalry that is starting to reach the status of Bird/Magic, Russell/Wilt, and any other pantheon-level rivalry across all professional sports.

But the key to the series doesn’t start with those two.

Don’t get me wrong, Curry, who just scored the most points ever in a game 7 on the road to upset the feel-good Sacramento Kings, and Lebron, who just got through showing Dillon Brooks and crew what it means to “poke the bear” will each have their fair share of moments throughout this series. And if anything, their importance to their respective ball clubs is evident, if not crystal clear. Curry is the heartbeat of this Warriors team, the star that gives life to the rest of the solar system. James, even at his age, is still arguably the greatest player of all time, and even if he’s battling through a foot injury — there’s no question about what he provides to this resilient Lakers team.

But the key to this entire series is James’s running mate and frontcourt partner, Anthony Davis.

With the Kings-Warriors series fresh in our mind, I’d like to remind you just how pivotal the frontcourt battle was in that series between Domantas Sabonis, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney. Outside of the stomping, the rebounding battle between those 3, especially on the offensive glass, determined the series.

Game 7: 

Warriors 18 offensive rebounds, Kings 14 – Warriors win 

Game 6: 

Warriors 11 offensive rebounds, Kings 18 – Kings win 

Game 5: 

Warriors 11 offensive rebounds, Kings 11 – Warriors win 

Game 4: 

Warriors 8 offensive rebounds, Kings 12 – Warriors win 

Game 3: 

Warriors 18 offensive rebounds, Kings 13 – Warriors win 

Game 2: 

Warriors 9 offensive rebounds, Kings 12 – Kings win 

Game 1: 

Warriors 9 offensive rebounds, Kings 17 – Kings win 

As you can see, safe for Game 4 that went down to the wire, the winning team won the offensive rebounding battle in every game of the series. I’ve already detailed why winning extra possessions for your team becomes even more important in the heightened environment of playoff basketball in a previous article, but the truth is: more possessions, more chances to score, and when you have deadly shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson who can take advantage of a scrambling defense as relocation threats, it becomes all that more important.

Credit to Looney, who averaged over 5 offensive rebounds per night through the 7 games of that series, including 10 backbreakers in Game 7 to completely demoralize Sabonis and the Kings.

This is a good time to remind you that Sabonis won the rebounding title for the season — he was, by all accounts, the best rebounder of the year — and yet, in the postseason, The Loon Dawg completely outperformed him and helped shift the series.

Looney will have a tougher task at hand with Davis, however. Davis would’ve won the rebounding title over Sabonis this season had he played enough games, nabbing over 12.5 a night through 56 contests. He’s carried that over into the post-season, grabbing over 13 rebounds through 6 games against the smaller Grizzlies frontcourt, including 3 offensive rebounds per night as well.

Perhaps what will be even more important, though, is Davis crashing the defensive glass to make sure the Warriors’ highly potent offense doesn’t get extra possessions and so that the Lakers’ elite transition offense can get out and run.

Closing out defensive possessions will be crucial from the Warriors’ perspective as well. The Lakers dominated the Grizzlies through 6 games, grabbing 30.4% of all potential offensive rebounds, the 6th highest rate in the playoffs thus far. And what makes them even more troubling is that Davis’s hands are arguably the best in the NBA, he’s elite at tip-ins and putbacks, he has a great second jump and his massive frame and length make him an even more difficult matchup than Sabonis.

Watch how Davis gets deep position, grabs the board, and goes straight up. Yes, it’s against Santi Aldama but he can do this… very consistently.

Or, worse, he can get you in foul trouble like he does here.

But possibly where Davis thrives the most on the offensive glass is cleaning up his teammate’s missed layups on drives.

Looney will have his hands full trying to contain Davis on the glass, which means that most likely, later in the series, the Warriors will start sending a second rebounder to help — in all likelihood, that will be Draymond Green.

This isn’t the only way that Davis’s presence is going to impact the series, however. Offensively, the Lakers big man is a much more aggressive scorer than Sabonis — who has a much more potent outside shot as well.

Davis knocked down 44% of all of his mid-range shots this season, tied for a career-best, and while he doesn’t take or make as many threes as he once did — the mid-range shot is much more than what Sabonis provided offensively against the Warriors.

For instance, the Warriors won’t be able to sag off of Davis like this.

And they won’t. They understand that’ll be an automatic jump shot for Davis every time and that’s going to drag Looney out of the paint, which will make it much easier for the Lakers to apply pressure on the rim — something they were 5th best at all season.

The only thing Sabonis and Davis share in common is that they are offensive hubs for which the systems of their respective teams are built around — but the way they go about that is entirely different. Sabonis was a playmaker, who thrived off of DHOs and finding off-ball cutters. Davis is a scorer, who is going to apply pressure on the rim and get your frontcourt in foul trouble.

That’s exactly what happened on March 5th when the Lakers beat the Warriors in their final regular season battle, where Looney picked up 3 quick fouls in the first half.

The Lakers will need Davis to be aggressive, to look to score, and to apply pressure on the Warriors’ frontcourt to open things up for the rest of the team.

So, rebounding and scoring will be key indicators for how the Warriors do against Davis in this series. But, maybe even more important is what Davis can do to the Warriors’ offense defensively — as a rim protector who can wall off the paint and make it tough for Golden State to establish a presence in the interior.

This wasn’t a problem against the Kings or Sabonis, who didn’t have the size necessary to block and deter shots around the basket — it will be a problem against Davis and the Lakers.

In fact, that’s how Curry gained an advantage in Game 7 — he applied pressure on the basket with his potent floater game and craft around the rim, scoring 24 of his 50 points within 10 feet of the basket.

Davis blocked 26 shots through 6 games against the Grizzlies, including 5 in the game-sealing win at Crypto in game 6. He contested and deterred countless others.

Watch how Davis’s presence can wall off the paint, even as a help defender — completely taking away the options available to them around the basket.

And one thing is clear: rim pressure matters folks.

You can shoot as many jump shots as you’d like, and the Warriors will gladly do that with Curry, Thompson, and Jordan Poole — but relying on that too heavily can get tricky. It can make them one-track-minded, and if there isn’t another source of offense available, because Davis will have shut off the water in the paint, then it’ll make it much easier to stop this Warriors offense.

Watch how Davis can wall off the paint, like on this play here from when the Warriors and Lakers last played in March.

The Warriors can counteract this by trying to get Davis involved in high pick-n-rolls and ask Curry to be more of a playmaker — relying on his gravity to create open shots for his teammates.

But even then, Davis’s gigantic frame can be enough to force a turnover-heavy team in the Warriors to be even more turnover-prone.

In the end, it’ll come down to how Davis puts his imprint on the game — as a rebounder, scorer, and defender. We’ve seen at times throughout his career, that his aggressiveness isn’t the most consistent character trait of his game. When he wants to be, Davis can be as imposing as almost any NBA big man ever — but it’s only when he wants to.

In Round 1, the Warriors used their experience playing against smaller teams to draw out the worst aspects of Sabonis’s game — they’ll have a much tougher battle against the more physically imposing, and offensively minded player in AD. On top of that, the Warriors have struggled against size all season and Davis has had the most dominant interior season of his career. It feels whichever one of those breaks first will be the determining factor of this series.

Can Looney and Draymond be physically imposing enough and bothersome enough to impose their will on Davis, as they did with Sabonis?

And can Davis, who has materially changed his game this season to become a more dominant paint presence, impose his own will on the Warriors’ frontcourt and cause them to conform to his style of play?

Those questions will define the series.

For as long as Davis has been in Los Angeles, the Lakers have always been at their best when he’s at his best. He showed as much in the NBA bubble as he led the Lakers to the 2020 title. This Lakers team, as currently constructed, is built to be a team that caters to the needs of Davis but also requires Davis to hold up his end of the bargain.

When The Brow is at his best, he’s shown the NBA world that there are few in the league who can be better.

That’s who the Lakers will need in this series if they want to win. And that’s who they’ll need if they want any chance of winning it all.