Long before Kobe Bryant grudgingly attended the Los Angeles Lakers’ free-agent pitch meetings for Dwight Howard in 2013 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2014, he identified a rare talent who could eventually want to inherit the mantle Bryant left with the franchise.
Bryant was the elder statesman on the 2012 Olympic team that won a gold medal in London. Anthony Davis was its young buck. The best college player and recent No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft was added to the roster for his own basketball edification, though not expected to contribute much.
But Bryant saw something in the lanky 19-year-old, and when he ran into Davis’ parents at the team hotel, he let them know he would be looking out for their son.
“When we first got there,” Anthony Davis Sr. told ESPN, “Kobe came over to us and said, ‘Mr. Davis, I got your boy with me. I’m taking the young fella under my wing. He’s going everywhere I go this whole Olympics.’ And that’s what he did. Wherever Kobe went, Anthony went.'”
Davis even tweeted about it.
— Anthony Davis (@AntDavis23) July 28, 2012
Over the years, their relationship grew behind the scenes. Bryant would make a point of saying hello to Davis’ parents whenever the Lakers played in New Orleans. He’d stay in touch with Davis via text too.
There was never an ulterior motive to Bryant’s mentorship, Davis’ father said, never a recruiting pitch to join the Lakers. Bryant simply recognized a young player yearning to be great and wanted to nurture that. He did that with several players in the latter part of his career.
Bryant was always bracingly clear about his feelings on recruiting for the Lakers. The player worthy of taking the torch from him and leading the Lakers would need no sales pitch. He’d want that challenge. No, he would need that challenge. If Bryant had to convince him in a free-agent meeting, the player wasn’t right for the job.
It took a long time for Davis to decide he needed that challenge. Then it took an ugly series of trade negotiations with the Pelicans for the Lakers to finally fulfill his wish in the last offseason.
But Davis continues to make good on Bryant’s faith in him throughout these playoffs. In the Finals, Davis is averaging 33 points and 11.5 rebounds. After he scored 32 points on 15-of-20 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Lakers’ 124-114 Game 2 win over the Miami Heat on Friday, the Lakers are now just two wins away from their 17th NBA title.
“We came in tonight and said this is a must-win for us. We’re going to come in the next game and say it’s a must-win, and the next game it’s a must-win, and so on and so forth,” Davis said.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Davis is now the fifth player in Finals history to tally 30 points, 10 rebounds and 75% shooting, joining Lakers greats Shaquille O’Neal (twice in 2004) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971) along with Boston Celtics Hall of Famers Kevin McHale (1985) and Larry Bird (1984).
On Friday night, Davis was absolutely dominant against the short-handed Heat, who were missing their best defender, center Bam Adebayo (shoulder), as well as one of their leading scorers, point guard Goran Dragic (foot).
LeBron James finds the soft spot in the zone and throws the bounce pass to Anthony Davis for the easy dunk.
Davis scored on half-court lobs from Rajon Rondo. On alley-oops from LeBron James. On offensive rebounds. Against the Heat’s zone defense, he hit 9 of 14 shots. He was 8-of-10 when creating his own shot and 7-of-10 off teammates’ passes. Miami threw six different defenders at him, and he scored on all of them except for Andre Iguodala.
Davis was so good Friday night, he and James were fielding postgame questions about how they compare to Bryant and O’Neal as all-time great Lakers duos.
“In high school, watching the Kobe-Shaq duo was the most dominant duo that I have personally seen in my life from a basketball perspective,” said James, who on Friday had 33 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists in his 21st Finals game with 30 or more points. “Obviously, we knew the force that Shaq brought to the table, but the elegance and force that Kobe played with, as well.
“They were very dominant in what they did on the floor, on both sides of the floor. It’s very humbling that we can be even mentioned with those greats.”
“They are the best duo we’ve seen,” he said. “Multiple championships. They both were so dominant …
“But you know, those two guys were selfless. They both had a competitive spirit with themselves to will their teams to win. I think me and Bron are the same way.”
“When you have two guys who want to win as bad as we do and want to be dominant every single game,” Davis continued, “you have games like tonight, where two guys, we’re able to score the basketball and able to rebound and able to find guys. It’s rare you see it. We know we have something special with us two and this team, and just trying to capitalize on it.”
Anthony Davis speaks on the comparison he and LeBron James get to the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers are now 20-1 when Davis and James combine for at least 60 points, which is tied with O’Neal and Bryant (1999-2000) for the best record in a season by teammates in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. The Golden State Warriors were 26-2 when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 60 points in 2015-16 and 18-2 when Curry and Kevin Durant did so in 2016-17. Unsurprisingly, each of those duos won a championship that year.
Davis and James still need two more wins over the Heat to finish this season with a title. And Miami made it clear in the second half of Friday’s game that it won’t go easily.
After the Heat trailed by 14 at halftime, franchise icon Dwyane Wade tweeted, “All we wanna see is some fight. Let’s go. Keep playing.”
Then Miami’s elder statesman, Udonis Haslem, lit into the team with a fiery speech during a timeout, and the Heat rallied to score 39 points in the third quarter to make the contest competitive in the fourth.
But Miami will have a hard time coming back if Dragic and Adebayo aren’t able to contribute at some point. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that there is “hope” Adebayo can play Sunday in Game 3.
“We’re never giving up. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to ride with this thing ’til the wheels fall off. It’s not over,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who finished with 25 points and 13 assists in 45 minutes. “We’re just down 0-2, so we got to do something special. We’re capable of it, and I wouldn’t want to be in the trenches with any other guys except for the ones that we have.”
Offense wasn’t the issue for the Heat on Friday, as Miami became the first team to lose a Finals game after hitting at least 50% of its field goal attempts (36-of-71, 50.7%), 40% of its 3-point attempts (11-of-27, 40.7%) and 90% of its free throws (31-of-34, 91.2%).
Kelly Olynyk scored 24 for the Heat in Game 2, and rookies Tyler Herro had 17 and Kendrick Nunn chipped in 13.
But Miami simply couldn’t stop Davis, James and the Lakers, who were sharing the ball at a high rate — according to Second Spectrum, their 403 passes were the fourth most in a playoff game since tracking began in 2014 — and hitting 50.5% from the field (49-97), including 34% on a Finals-record 47 3-point attempts.
It’s a challenge the Heat will have to figure out — and fast.
“They have great size, and Anthony Davis is an elite player,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to get something accomplished, and you just have to go to another level. That’s the bottom line.
“We don’t give a s— what everybody else thinks. What will it take? Whatever is necessary. It’s simple as that.”