Friday, September 22 2023
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Anthony Davis is so good at playing defense that, on Friday, he decided that the process of blocking shots was just a bit too slow for him. See, when you block a shot, you have to actually wait for the shooter to release the ball. You have to time your jump and your swat. You might hit the ball out of bounds and give your opponent the ball back, and even if you manage to direct it to a teammate you might not get the ball back on that possession.

So Davis decided to streamline the process a bit on one first quarter possession. Rather than simply blocking Ja Morant, he managed to grab the ball out of Morant’s hands before he even released it. He did this with a single hand and he barely left the ground. Once he controlled it, he led the break himself and ultimately helped the Lakers score two easy points in transition.

It was the sort of “wait, how did he do that?” play that Davis has made routine throughout his career. When Davis is at his best, he does things defensively that don’t even feel possible. It’s just been a while since he’s gotten there consistently. Disregarding the 68 games he missed over the two previous seasons, he even paced himself quite a bit this season, when he was the healthiest he’s been since 2020. That’s part of what prevented him from earning a single Defensive Player of the Year vote this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. won the award, and the two were fittingly able to face off in the first round of the postseason. Davis destroyed him. Counting stats tells only part of the tale, but Davis beat Jackson in just about every category.

Anthony Davis

Jaren Jackson Jr.










Contested Shots



Defensive Rebounds



Davis leads the postseason overall in blocks, defensive rebounds and contested shots. He leads all big men in deflections and trails only Draymond Green and Domantas Sabonis among big men in steals. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers posted a stellar 100.4 defensive rating with Davis on the court during the series. Only one regular season defense, the No. 1 ranked Cleveland Cavaliers, even finished within 10 points per 100 possessions of that figure. 

The matchup data is even more impressive. Davis spent most of the series functioning as a help-defender, but when he matched up with Jackson one-on-one, the Memphis big man couldn’t do a thing. Jackson shot 9-of-30 from the floor against Davis. Ja Morant wasn’t much better on 10-of-27. The Grizzlies as a team shot 38-of-114, or 33.3%, when Davis was their primary defender, according to tracking data. By those same numbers, the Lakers shot 41-of-101 against Jackson.

Holding the Lakers to roughly 40% shooting as a primary defender is great work. That’s what was so stark about the series Davis just had. Jackson wasn’t bad. He was, in fact, quite good. He didn’t just block shots and defend individual players well. He was a significant deterrent to the Lakers near the basket. There’s a reason LeBron James spent so much of the series shooting 3-pointers. Many pre-series Lakers picks revolved around the idea that Jackson would get into foul trouble as he so often has in the past. He didn’t. Jackson played aggressive yet disciplined defense. He looked like a worthy Defensive Player of the Year. And Davis was still far better.

Game 6 was his opus. The Grizzlies shot a pathetic 16-of-50 in the paint that Davis patrolled. They were 17-of-58 on 2-pointers overall. For the season, Memphis led the NBA in points in the paint. They scored 58.4 of them per game. Davis didn’t play in the fourth quarter, but in the three he was around for, the Grizzlies scored just 20 points total in the paint. The Memphis starters had more turnovers (10) than 2-point field goals (9).

It was a masterpiece, yet to those who watch him frequently, it was the standard. “I think he was AD,” LeBron James said after Game 6. “He was AD. I think we all know, basketball guys know, competition knows, how dominant AD is defensively. He was AD. He was spectacular.”

To the Lakers, Davis doing the impossible defensively has become a pretty common occurrence. To an NBA that had gotten used to his absence, it is absolutely jarring. Davis may not have received a vote for Defensive Player of the Year even though the injury excuse holds little water in a world in which he played more total minutes than Jackson. He probably won’t earn All-Defense honors, and he wasn’t even an All-Star this season.

But if there was any lingering doubt about what sort of player Davis could be when the games really count, they are gone now. Davis is playing like the defensive boogeyman he was when the Lakers won the 2020 championship. He just dominated the Defensive Player of the Year in the process. He may pace himself out of regular-season honors, but with the season on the line, he is the single best defender on the planet, and considering how far ahead he was of Jackson in the first round, there might not be anyone else who’s close.



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