For the past eight seasons, no one has been able to solve the Golden State Warriors’ perplexing puzzle. Until now.
The four-time NBA champions were finally dethroned as the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Warriors in six games in the 2023 Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers became the first Western Conference team to beat the Warriors in a playoff series since Steve Kerr was hired in 2014. The size and length of the Lakers were simply too much for the small-ball Warriors, and the catalyst for the NBA’s top-rated defense was Anthony Davis.
The Lakers’ versatile center was nothing short of sensational against the defending NBA champs. Davis was able to roam freely because the Warriors don’t have a big man who requires AD’s constant attention. The Lakers’ suffocating defense forced the Warriors to play inside the 3-point line and limited their shot attempts by securing defensive rebounds.
First-year coach Darvin Ham brought to L.A. many of the defensive principles he learned from his time with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. But the scheme only works if it has a defensive stud patrolling every inch of the hardwood.
Davis is the chess piece Ham frequently uses to check every opponent’s best move.
“The Lakers have a great defense,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose team was held to 10 points below their season average. “Davis at the rim was a huge obstacle. Not only a shot blocker but a guy who takes up a lot of space and cuts down a lot of passing lanes.”
The Warriors struggled from the field in the close-out game, shooting just 37.9% from the field and making just 13 of 48 3-pointers. Davis attempted only nine shots in Game 6 and finished with 17 points, but his imprint was all over the court. He pulled down 20 rebounds, had two blocks and two steals. His presence was felt throughout the series.
“To me the series came down to games 1 and 4,” Kerr said. “The Lakers outplayed us in key stretches in both games. That’s really the difference. The better team won.”
If one sequence summarized Golden State’s struggles against Davis and the Lakers, look no further than the final frantic minute of Game 4 in L.A. With the Warriors down by a point at 102-101 with 36 seconds left in Game 4, Steph was isolated against AD at the top of the circle with 36 seconds on the game clock. It was only fitting the game would come down to the game’s best shooter against the best defensive center in basketball. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Curry was ready to seize the moment, like has for the better part of the decade as the ring leader of the Warriors, but Davis was more than up to the task.
Curry starts the play with a few crossover dribbles. Davis pokes the ball to disrupt Steph’s rhythm and the Warriors guard was forced to retrieve the loose ball and restart the play. Curry then drove left, but AD cuts him off. Curry resets and tries to drive to his right. AD cuts him off again, and forces Curry to take a difficult one-legged, step-back jumper contested by the 7-foot-6 wingspan of Davis. The shot rattled off the rim.
“I pride myself on defense,” David told Spectrum SportsNet reporter Mike Trudell.
“They wanted, obviously, the switch with me and I took that personally,” he continued. “I know what he gets to like his stepback 3 and I just wanted to move my puppies. As my man, coach would say, I just wanted to move them puppies and keep him in front and make him take a tough shot and that’s what I did.
“He’s a helluva player, there’s no shot that he can’t make. He takes all the tough shots and he makes them. I just wanted to make it tough on him and make him shoot over a contested hand and pray that he missed, cuz he’ll make those. And he missed, got it back, and I just wanted to defend again and make him miss again and we ended up getting the rebound. Big time defense from me, but big time rebounding from our guys.”
The Warriors would get another opportunity with 26 seconds left after Draymond Green secures the offensive rebound. He fires the ball back to Steph, who gets another shot at shaking Davis. This time, Curry settles for a 30-foot 3-pointer that he had to put extra arc because of Davis’ length. The shot fell short, bouncing off the front of the rim. Lonnie Walker IV, who had a huge fourth quarter for the Lakers coming off the bench, grabs the rebound and gets fouled. Walker made both free throws, setting up for the final Davis defensive stand.
Down 104-101 and needing a 3-pointer, Golden State coach Steve Kerr called for the “hammer play” to free up a 3-pointer shooter in the corner. The play was a staple of the San Antonio Spurs offense during the Tim Duncan era, and it’s a play the Warriors have run many times. Unfortunately for Kerr and the Warriors, AD and LeBron James were familiar with the play as well. As soon as AD realized what the play was, he peeled off his man and jumped Klay Thompson’s corner route and intercepted Draymond Green’s pass.
Even though the Warriors would get another short possession after Curry grabbed a loose ball off a jump ball, but inexplicably threw the ball away with a time-out left in his pocket, the Lakers grabbed full control of the series thanks to their superstar center wearing No. 3.
“That’s a big part of the series for sure. Davis is dominant,” Kerr said about the Lakers’ big man.
Davis has been an absolute monster on defense during the 2023 playoffs. He leads all players in the postseason in every major statistical category on defense. He’s No. 1 in blocks (3.3) and rebounds (14.1), and has contested the most 2-point shots through the first two rounds of the postseason. He is also the only center who ranks in the top five on deflections.
AD’s disruptive hands are a big reason why the Lakers own the best defensive rating since the All-Star break. The addition of forwards Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura have afforded L.A. more athleticism and size up front to go with Davis’ unique ability to guard one through five.
Despite his defensive credentials, Davis remains an easy target for critics. He still doesn’t get the respect he richly deserves from the media and pundits.
When the NBA announced its All-Defensive Teams, there was one glaring omission. Where’s Anthony Davis?
The first team was comprised of Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr., Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, Chicago’s Alex Caruso, and Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday. All of them were bounced from the playoffs either in the first round or in the play-in tournament. Jackson Jr., the 2023 NBA defensive player of the year, was matched up with AD in the first round and it was a landslide. Davis was the more superior defender and far more impactful than Triple J.
LeBron let the world know who he thinks in the NBA’s best defender. “He’s the best defensive player in the league,” LeBron told TNT’s Chris Haynes.
“I think the league knows it,” LeBron said. “There aren’t many guys who can protect the rim at all costs and switch out on point guards like Steph [Curry]. We trust AD guarding anybody in the league.”