LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the middle of the Lakers’ biggest win so far this postseason, Anthony Davis was struggling.
It was hard to tell from the 6-foot-10 forward’s body language that his team was blowing out the Houston Rockets in Game 5. He hung his head. He slumped his shoulders. As he shuffled to the bench during a timeout in the third quarter, he brushed past several open palms of his teammates, who looked at him with concern.
Davis was in the midst of what would be a 4-for-9 night from the field with six turnovers, a frustrating slog that took him nearly a half to score a basket at all. Even when ahead, the 27-year-old has a way of letting tough games get to him.
“When I’m playing, I’m a perfectionist,” Davis told Southern California News Group. “I want to make every shot, make every play defensively, I want to be in the right spots. That game, I just wasn’t … I just happened to be bleeding.”
Even from the bench, LeBron James can take in the entire court with his vision. And as Davis looked over to the sideline, James shouted his way: “Just take a deep breath! Just breathe!”
It’s simple advice, but coming from James — Davis’ partner and mentor in this long and unthinkably challenging season — it means the world. It took some time, but Davis stiffened up and played out the close out, in which the Lakers would smash the Rockets by 23 points.
There’s been plenty of moments this season when James, who has had times in his career when he’s been tough on his teammates, can sense that Davis needs to be picked up.
“It’s a guy who strives for perfection and wants to be great — I know,” he told SCNG of that moment. “Anytime you see someone like that may be getting down on themselves or feel like they can be so much better, it’s great to just, you know, breathe. Just breathe, take a deep breath, center yourself and get back to work.”
The NBA bubble has been a strange environment for pressure, which has been refracted and intensified in unpredictable ways. It’s cleared the path for culture- and chemistry-driven teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat, and has callously crushed once-favored contenders Milwaukee and the Clippers replete with star talent.
Davis has gotten a feel for that pressure, too, and person he’s looked to the most in those moments is James, a three-time champion in the mold of the competitor that Davis strives to be.
It’s not always a reminder to breathe (it would be naive to ignore here that James is a spokesman for a meditation app). But sometimes it’s lighthearted banter. When Davis checks out at the end of the third quarter and James checks in with a lead, Davis often tells him: “Alright now, I’m not trying to play in the fourth.”
I’ve got your back, James said.
“So, just little things like that where we can encourage each other, just help each other out during the season, because it can get tough,” Davis said. “You got two guys who guys look up to and look to lean on, and it can get tough especially for a whole season. Luckily it’s two guys and not one.”
Davis was a solo act for much of his time in New Orleans, and while he produced statistically, he struggled with other aspects of stardom. Fans prodded and picked at his injury history, which were widely seen at the time as minor ailments. Davis went to the playoffs just twice, and his only truly brilliant run with the Pelicans was to sweep Portland in 2018.
Even though he had Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday as teammates during that run, and he seemed to thrive when DeMarcus Cousins arrived via trade, Davis found it difficult to elevate the franchise when it fell mostly on his shoulders. Through seven years, Davis had made three All-NBA teams, but what he wanted most — a championship — seemed devastatingly out of reach: “We know what the bigger goal is, especially for me.”
While Davis has a 7-foot-5 wingspan and athleticism that made him one of the most fluid and productive big men in the NBA, he needed guidance in how to win. And he finally has that in James.
One of the most striking things Paul George said when the Clippers blew their 3-1 lead to the Nuggets was that it was the first time he had “not been considered an underdog.” Expectations to win are difficult to shoulder, and in James’ view: “Some people was built for this moment and some people were not.”
Davis has handled that before as a marquee player at Kentucky, which had a blue blood culture and star recruits. Davis has felt his Lakers tenure has had a similar feel. And no one has more playoff experience to draw on than James, who during the last series claimed the most individual playoff wins in NBA history. With a 3-6 record in the Finals, he’s felt the weight of title contender disappointment, and many times come back from it.
“Obviously any team LeBron’s on is more than likely gonna be favored, and he’s kinda helped me with that,” he said. “It’s gonna be ‘pressure,’ but you gotta want that and embrace it. And that’s all I’ve been doing, embracing that and just being able to go out there and just play.”
There’s been signs that James has responded to Davis’ presence, too. While Davis has little to teach the 35-year-old about playoff series, James’ re-embrace of defense in his 17th year has been staggering because it has been some time since he played this well on that side of the ball. James’ last Cleveland team that went to the Finals had a 112.1 defensive rating when he was on the court; in his Lakers’ minutes during the regular season, the team has had a 103.6 defensive rating.
James is not one to admit that he ever draws motivation from others — “I’m an only child so I had to push myself,” he said — but he did acknowledge that he understands he has to play hard when Davis is looking to him as an example.
“In the sense of being older than AD, I think it’s showing him how much I put into my craft, and hopefully it trickles down to him,” James said in his Thursday press conference. “I feel like I would be cheating him if he came to be a part of this and I was cheating the game in some way, shape or form. It’s not an example I would ever set for any of my teammates, not just AD, but anybody I ever played with.”
James is famously tight-fisted when it comes to trusting teammates, and his style has grated with many of them. Complicated relationships with teammates like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love worked themselves out, aided by the final prize. Relationships like his with Kyrie Irving deteriorated over time, even though they won a championship together.
So far in their first playoff run together, James has not needed “a talk” with Davis. The two have never sat down for James to explain to him all the nuances of being a star for a high-profile franchise, and how he should conduct himself. But preparation for his first conference finals against the Nuggets, Davis said, the message that meant the most was hearing James say, “You’re going to be huge in this series.”
“We didn’t sit down and have a conversation about it, but I can just see it,” he said. “Little things he say here and there, I know it relates to it.”
Maybe what James has already seen so far has helped him be the kind voice to Davis rather than the harsh, demanding one. Davis has averaged 27.6 points (more than James) with 10.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He’s guarded every position at least once, and he didn’t hesitate when the Lakers moved him to full-time center against the Rockets. His defensive presence has helped the Lakers extinguish some of the best scorers in the league.
James sees it: Davis has the talent. He just needs the occasional reminder to breathe, then play.
“I feel like it was just my opportunity to say something,” James told SCNG. “But he’s special. He’s very special.”