As if he was holding his little brother’s favorite toy above his head, Anthony Davis stood under the Staples Center basket two weeks ago, his long right arm outstretched while Phoenix’s Torrey Craig looked toward the rafters at it.
The ball was soon headed toward the rim, Davis jumping, palming it and slamming it through the hoop — a tough play made to look easier because against the Suns, Davis looked like a giant.
It’s an advantage the Lakers will look to exploit during their first-round playoff series with Phoenix, a bizarre matchup with one team having the second-best record in the NBA and the other the defending champions and favorites to win the series.
Even though the Lakers are Game 1 underdogs — they lost Game 1 twice last year in the playoffs — conventional wisdom has given the Lakers the edge, that dominant Davis performance still fresh.
He scored 42 against the Suns in the Lakers’ only win against Phoenix this season, getting to the free-throw line 17 times while grabbing 12 rebounds, blocking three shots and making three steals.
“I’m getting my legs back, I’m getting my rhythm back, getting my steps back on both ends of the floor,” Davis said after that game. “I’m feeling better each game, getting my wind back each game, so we’re heading in the right direction.”
The Lakers have won six straight since then, including Wednesday’s play-in game, on their way into the postseason.
Scouts who watched Davis torch the Suns said it might be the clearest advantage the Lakers have — Phoenix forced to try to use some combination of Craig, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton or Dario Saric to slow Davis.
But coach Frank Vogel isn’t as convinced, or, at least he’s not saying it.
“You can’t take a whole lot away from one game out of 72. Phoenix didn’t play a great game defensively that night,” Vogel said Friday. “But they are a top-seven defense in this league. And we know they’re gonna put up a hell of a fight.”
How the teams respond psychologically to the respective favorite/underdog statuses is a fascinating subplot, Davis already saying that it’ll be key for the Lakers to “steal” the series opener Sunday in Arizona.
“I think if you [win] on the road it puts a lot more pressure on them, the higher seed, on the team who has home-court advantage,” Davis said Friday. “If you’re able to steal that it’s a better sign for you and you just gotta take business at home. So our mindset is to take Game 1.”
And the Suns? The bulletin board won’t be lacking for motivation from series prognosticators.
“They’re the No. 2 team in the league for a reason,” LeBron James said Friday.
The Lakers should be at full strength Sunday, with James feeling healthy and avoiding suspension for a business gathering he held Monday night. A league source confirmed that James’ event, which was to promote his tequila brand, wasn’t considered a virus-spreading danger because of the protocols. Only fully vaccinated players are able to attend those kinds of events.
James hasn’t said whether he’s been vaccinated.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said with a chuckle when asked about it Friday.
James’ availability is, in fact, a very big deal, the Suns beating incomplete Lakers rosters twice this season. But the plan was to always build, to get everyone healthy at the right time.
That time is here, with James and Davis feeling well as the Lakers begin their quest to defend their NBA title with the hope that they’ll be better Sunday than they were the last time they were on the court.
“I think we’re pretty close,” Davis said of the Lakers’ on-court cohesion. “I mean, every game we’re talking things out. We’re watching film together. We’re learning each other on the floor. It’s going to take time because we haven’t had that much game-time together. … We’re finding it more and more every time we step out on the floor.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.