LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LeBron James spoke with his hand first. Anthony Davis rose for a three-pointer, and James raised a hand, knowing it was going in, before the ball even started its descent to the rim. You play enough basketball, you play with a guy enough, and you happen to be a basketball genius, sometimes you just know.
Alex Caruso spoke with his hands later. He called Davis “a Defensive player of the Year finalist,” and he made quote marks when he said “finalist,” because the Lakers wake up every morning convinced Davis is the best defensive player in the world, James is the best player in the world, and that makes them the best team in the world. They are one win away from proving they are correct.
Game 4 was a grind, the way the Heat wanted it, and the Lakers got exasperated, because the Heat do that, but the Lakers won anyway, because James and Davis willed them there. They shot 16 for 32 from the field while the rest of the team shot 19 for 47, but that wasn’t really the story. James and Davis—especially Davis—controlled the defense. Late in the Lakers’ 102–96 win, Miami star Jimmy Butler drove to the rim, and Davis swatted the ball away with his left hand with the annoyance of a man who has heard far, far too much about Butler’s bubble coffee business.
“That’s why he’s the defensive player of the year,” James said, knowing full well that technically, he is not. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the award. He also won MVP. He is also not playing anymore.
Here is the beauty of this Lakers team: Coach Frank Vogel said that defensively, “Game 2 and 3 we were not good enough, quite frankly, to win in the NBA Finals,” and he didn’t have to tell his team twice. Davis and James knew. They understood implicitly. They made sure everybody else did, too.
The Lakers showed up to Game 3 like a team that knew it was up 2–0 and expected to walk over a shorthanded opponent. Butler responded with 40 points in an upset. Well, that can work once. Vogel said “our adjustments from last game to this game was to try to keep those two guys on him as much as possible.” Butler’s 40 came too easily. The Lakers would not let that happen again.
“We feel like we got bullied, we got outworked, and they were scrappier than us,” Davis said. “We didn’t like it.”
It is easy to say the Lakers are one win from a championship because they have James and Davis, but that oversimplifies it. They work so well together, they are so willing to do whatever needs to be done, and Vogel deploys them in different ways depending on the matchup.
Most nights, plus-minus does not tell us much about Davis and James. They are so consistently great; their plus-minus fluctuates mostly based on who hits shots while they’re on the floor. Game 4 was another example of it. Davis was plus-17. James was minus-2. That tells us nothing. After four early turnovers, James orchestrated the offense masterfully. He fired cross-court passes. He hit big shots with the defense keyed on him. With the game tied at 83, Caruso set a screen for James, and he split the coverage, drove to the hoop, got fouled by Jae Crowder and hit one of those off-balance shots that most people should not attempt.
The Lakers made it clear from the beginning of Game 4 that they would match the Heat’s physicality. That took some commitment. Davis hit the floor a lot, and when Davis falls, he falls hard. It is most likely a consequence of being 11 feet tall. James took umbrage at two straight hard fouls by Crowder. He even rammed into teammate Rajon Rondo in an atrocious bit of luck—“We have a clean rebound, we smash each other in the paint,” James said, and the ball trickled to Miami, which hit a three.
This was hard. Game 5 will be hard, too. The Lakers knew that conceptually coming into this series, but then Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic got hurt, the Lakers won the first two games, and the Lakers kind of forgot. James made sure they will not forget again. He said he thought this was one of the biggest games of his career, and he texted his teammates after his midday nap to remind them this was, in his mind, a must-win. The next one is not a must-win. But they will probably treat it like it is.