Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn must’ve thought ghosts were around every time he weaved around the free-throw line because he flinched as he flashed by LeBron James’ outstretched arms.
Apparently, he was unaware of the 6-foot-10 pterodactyl named Anthony Davis, waiting with long arms to swat away his layup and trigger a devastating fast break.
They were the same ghosts Tyler Herro saw when passing up would-be layups for turnovers or putting up a floater that had plenty of air and not enough ball.
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Davis was the same ghost every time, all night, aided by the arms and quick legs that made life impossible for most of the NBA all season, showcasing championship defensive habits built before the pandemic that flourished sporadically in Orlando.
But that D was devastating when deployed as Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel encouraged his team in a second-quarter timeout not to give up open 3-point shots, and no layups or fouls, as well.
Check, check and check.
It was a 30-point whipping for most of the night, belying the respectable final score of 106-93. Not a pandemic or catastrophe or bubble could keep the Lakers’ defense from an endless endurance that was on display Sunday night in Game 6.
A historic team, the Lakers are not. But defensively, they rank as high as any in Laker lore and it was the main reason, aside from the obvious top-heavy talent, that they captured their first title in 10 years — and ninth since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984.
Even though the league has evolved since, and the game certainly has, one thing that has always traveled through time zones and road arenas and even neutral sites has been defense. It would’ve been there during the hallway series with the Clippers or in Houston or in Milwaukee, or even in South Beach in June had this been under normal circumstances.
It’s what made the Golden State Warriors a dynasty, even though the focus was on the flash.
It was the San Antonio Spurs’ calling card for two decades, allowing them to maneuver and win five titles.
It was that way for Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Isiah Thomas’ Pistons, and Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers.
Their signature defense is a reason why the calls for an asterisk should be muted. It’s a hallmark for so many championship teams, and a big reason why the so-called contenders (Clippers, Rockets, Bucks) didn’t make it this far.
Make no mistake, the Heat were gassed. Erik Spoelstra only asks for “everything” from his team every game, and everything was required given the circumstances: A substandard and hobbled Bam Adebayo, a Goran Dragic whose presence was best utilized as inspiration compared to the leading scorer he was heading into the Finals, and rookies who finally looked the part.
Only another game-for-the-ages performance from Jimmy Butler could even keep it close, but it would’ve barely made the score academic. Depending on the impossible from a man who played 47 and 43 minutes in the previous two games is a sure-fire way to get the result from Sunday night.
It wasn’t impossible to expect a defensive masterpiece from Davis, who has the hands, awareness and quickness to rule the league on one end of the floor for years to come. There were some who scoffed at the comparisons, that Davis is the perfect genetic hybrid of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but he finally appears ready to step into those shoes beyond the stats.
When he’s locked in, he does something not any of James’ star-turned-role-player teammates could ever do: make LeBron commit and play high-level defense. You could make the case James has coasted on that end dating back to his last year in Miami’s switch-heavy, aggressive defensive system, only picking and choosing his spots to truly exert himself.
The biggest argument against James being at the top of the mountain and others stepping in for moments at a time (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard) has been his lack of commitment to that end consistently.
As much as Davis’ presence has made James a four-time champion, it has also put James back atop his peers as the game’s best player, four-time Finals MVP and possibly the best executive in the NBA.
“We just want our respect … I want my damn respect, too,” James said after picking up his fourth Bill Russell trophy.
Davis’ excellence has brought out the best of what James has left to give on that end, a peer accountability of sorts considering James isn’t wont to be outdone by something on any level of substance on his own team.
James became much more involved and engaged on that end, and could’ve garnered more votes on All-Defensive teams this year had his reputation not been a little dinged over the last few years.
It’s fitting the Lakers finished it off this way, not with a barrage of offense or a signature shooting display from James like in Game 5, but with defensive domination. It was blocked shots from Davis, fast breaks that led to so many layups and dunks, a full explosion from all involved compared to a singular performance.
You can point to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who came into the league as a player with endless defensive potential but seemed to drift the last couple years, being re-engaged on that end due to Davis.
Same for the maligned Rajon Rondo.
The contenders will line up for future shots at the champions, who’ll have two big aces and another with their defense, no matter how the roster changes before next season convenes.
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