Devin Booker grew larger by the minute, becoming as big as the moment.
Anthony Davis evaporated.
Chris Paul fought through injury, gritting through adversity.
Anthony Davis caved.
The Phoenix Suns were everything a winning playoff basketball team should be Sunday in a raucous first-round playoff opener.
Anthony Davis was none of those things, and so the Lakers never stood a chance.
The Suns filled the Talking Stick Resort Arena with a one-armed Paul, a playoff-novice roster, 16 fewer free throw attempts … and still won 99-90.
This is largely because Davis barely showed up.
Is anybody else getting tired of reading this? Is everyone pretty much sick of watching this? It sure is getting old writing it.
Davis helped the Lakers win one championship, and he may very well do so again, but he runs on a sputtering motor that is absolutely maddening.
One minute he is hitting “The Mamba Shot.” The next minute he is playing so softly that Kobe Bryant would have screamed.
A couple of weeks ago in a playoff-push game against Phoenix, Davis was unstoppable with 42 points and a dozen rebounds. On Sunday afternoon, in real playoff game to open a first-round series against the same Suns team, he had 13 points, two assists, zero offensive rebounds, and was a team-low minus-18.
Davis was swarmed by defenders, but so was the Suns’ Booker, who still managed to score 34 points. Davis is dealing with nagging pains, but the Suns’ Paul wrecked his right shoulder in the second quarter and still managed eight assists and a plus-six.
Make no mistake, in this loss the Lakers were nonetheless given a clear path to a series victory. After Paul bruised his right shoulder in a collision with teammate Cameron Johnson, his shooting and ballhandling were clearly hampered, and there’s no way Phoenix can survive without Paul being at full strength. The Lakers could, and actually should, win the next four games.
But that’s not the point. The point is that Davis is being paid $190 million to be a Lakers cornerstone for the next five years, but he can barely be consistent for five straight days.
You always know LeBron James will show up. You have no idea when Davis will choose join him.
Please, please, stop comparing the twosome to Kobe and Shaq. It’s not even close. James is Kobe and Shaq, while Davis is a reluctant star who often appears happy to be along for the ride.
Look what happened Sunday when he was matched up with a big man who thinks like a big man. Deandre Ayton owned Davis at both ends of the court, making 10 of 11 shots and compiling 16 rebounds while helping force Davis into 11 misses in 16 attempts.
Where Ayton drove, Davis lingered. Where Ayton crashed, Davis watched. Witnessing the one-sided duel, one wondered, why doesn’t Davis go to the rim more? Why is he allowed to lag around the perimeter so much?
Of course, the biggest question is, will this eventually cost the Lakers a championship? So far it seems as if James can carry even his giant wing man to a title, but at some point the Lakers are going to need Davis to create another Mamba Moment, and will he be up for it?
Davis was huge in crunch time of the Lakers’ play-in victory over Golden State on Wednesday, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter. Yet on Sunday, in a fourth quarter that needed him again, he disappeared, scoring one basket.
Afterward he was appropriately and admirably contrite, and vowed to be better. But that’s how he is after every bad game. At some point, Lakers fans are going to want him to trade accountability for action.
“There’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way that I played,” Davis said. “So, I mean, this is on me. I take full responsibility, for sure.”
Davis said that in the first quarter in which he had only two baskets and zero rebounds, the Lakers attack was running so well through others, he couldn’t find his fit.
“So I kind of just got lost in the offense,” he said. “But I still have to be assertive and find ways to get the ball. It just kind of took me out of rhythm, but that’s on me. I still gotta find ways to make plays on that end of the floor, offensively.”
Yeah, um, if you’re getting paid $190 million for your presence, should you really be allowing yourself to get lost?
As usual, Lakers coach Frank Vogel stood behind his star, just as he publicly backs everyone on a team that loves him for it.
“Give them credit,” Vogel said of the Suns’ coverage of Davis. “They did a good job limiting his touches and then bringing double teams when he did get it and making things difficult for him. But there are ways we can be better to take advantage of him.”
There’s actually only one way, and it starts with Davis demanding the ball and seizing the moment. The Lakers will never publicly admit it, but the feeling is that they agree Davis needs to be more consistently assertive.
“I love it when AD takes that pressure on himself,” said James, who only scored 18 but had 10 assists and seven rebounds. “We’re a better team when he’s aggressive, we’re a better team when he demands the ball.”
The last time this columnist questioned Davis’ mettle was all of 16 days ago. In his next two games he had 78 points and 24 rebounds.
It’s part of a vicious cycle. Davis shrinks, Davis is remorseful, Vogel protects him, James pumps him up, and Davis is great again.
“Anytime he comes to the pressure and tells you guys we can’t win with him playing the way he played, he always responds,” James said. “So looking forward to that.”
Sigh. Can’t wait.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.