After Jimmy Butler carved up the Bucks, Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo rejected the mere suggestion he’d ask to guard Butler.
After Butler carved up the Lakers, Anthony Davis defended Butler through a grueling Game 4 of the NBA Finals to help put Los Angeles within one game of a championship.
Davis said he wanted to win Defensive Player of the Year then played a superb defensive season. The Lakers trumpeted his candidacy throughout the year. But Antetokounmpo deserved the award, a regular-season honor.
Yet, Davis elevated his defense in the playoffs in a way Antetokounmpo didn’t . Davis showed incredible versatility, allowing Lakers coach Frank Vogel to alter his strategy through a lengthy postseason run. More importantly, Davis exerted his will regardless of circumstance. As big forwards who excel at help defense, neither Davis nor Antetokounmpo is perfectly suited to guard Butler, a wing. But Davis did it anyway – and did it effectively.
“That’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” LeBron James said.
LeBron (28 points, including 11 points in the final nine minutes, with 12 rebounds and eight assists) put himself in the driver’s seat for Finals MVP entering Game 5 Friday. That was always his award to lose. LeBron has the pedigree and narrative.
But Davis (22 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four blocks and a steal) was just as instrumental in this victory (and exceled in Game 1 and Game 2). The Lakers in Game 4…
- With Davis: +17 in 42 minutes
- Without Davis: -11 in six minutes
Davis was everywhere defensively, disrupting the Heat inside and out.
He did his most important work on Butler.
In Game 3, Butler became the first player to score 40 points without shooting a 3-pointer in the playoffs since 2014 (LaMarcus Aldridge) and in the Finals since 2002 (Shaquille O’Neal). So, the Lakers treated him as such. They put the 6-foot-10 Davis on him and repeatedly went under screens.
That threw Butler and the Heat. Butler struggled to drive against Davis and missed all three of his 3-pointers.
Butler (22 points on 8-of-14 2-point shooting with nine assists) still found some success, particularly when Dwight Howard switched onto him early. The Lakers were willing to switch in order to ease some of the on-ball burden on Davis and also keep Davis positioned for help defense. That left the downside of Howard on Butler, but Vogel solved that issue by playing Markieff Morris over Howard in the second half.
Though they weren’t matched up every moment, this just kept coming back to Davis guarding Butler.
The Lakers’ defensive rating was just 94 (!) when Davis and Butler shared the floor. For perspective, it was 160 in all other situations.
The Heat eventually found an answer with Butler running handoffs for shooters. Sagging toward the basket, Davis was ill-positioned to defend those. Butler can also do more off the ball if Davis continues to guard him.
But the Davis-on-Butler wrinkle doesn’t have to work forever. It worked on one highly important night, and now Los Angeles is up 3-1 in the NBA Finals.
A title would obviously gratify Davis, who forced a trade from the Pelicans to get this opportunity with the Lakers. However, this game alone could put Davis over the top for desired recognition.
Fellow Defensive Player of the Year finalists Antetokounmpo and Jazz center Rudy Gobert are long eliminated, their defensive flaws exposed in the playoffs. Effective regular-season defense doesn’t always translate to the postseason, when teams relentlessly attack liabilities rather than passively allow opponents to play to their strengths.
Davis has a nearly complete defensive profile. There’s no glaring weakness to exploit.
Not even while spending the night in a relatively unfavorable matchup against Butler.
Defensive Player of the Year? It’s too late for Davis to claim that regular-season award this year.
Best defender in the NBA? Davis is making his case.