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Lakers’ path past Grizzlies: Anthony Davis as No. 1 option

It’s been insinuated throughout the season. It’s been inferred since he was acquired. And, if you’ve heard it all, you might have caught Darvin Ham or LeBron James outright say it.

Since the early months of this marathon season, the Lakers coach and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and premiere alpha player have anointed Anthony Davis as the team’s No. 1 offensive option — the player they must get going and the one who, if all is going well, cannot be stopped.

It’s long been the plan, bridging from the James era to the Davis era with one future Hall of Famer ceding some responsibility to a younger future Hall of Famer. Yet injuries and some inconsistencies have made that sometimes easier said than done. James’ continued effectiveness, certainly, has factored into it as well, the Lakers at times having the luxury of a pair of go-to options.

With the Lakers set to play a pivotal Game 4 in a series they lead 2-1 on Monday in Los Angeles, Davis’ position literally and figuratively in the middle of the Lakers’ plans seems as important as ever.

Coming off a 31-point, 17-rebound effort Saturday in Game 3, Davis has his fingerprints all over the series on both ends of the court, his successes leading to wins and his off game last week in Memphis leading to the Lakers’ lone loss in the first-round playoff series.

“You have to embrace it,” Davis said.

Defensively, he’s been stellar in the Lakers’ system, spending most of the game defending a lesser offensive option to free him to roam and clean up plays at the rim.

Through three games, he’s blocked 15 shots — nearly twice as many as Knicks center Mitchell Robinson’s eight blocks through four games.

Davis has joined Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players since 1973 to begin the playoffs with at least 65 points, 35 rebounds and 15 blocks in three games.

“I’m getting into a flow. I had a good-rhythm game yesterday,” Davis said after the team’s film session Sunday. “It’s all about, for me, just going out and playing as hard as I can. Obviously, it’s the playoffs so the intensity increases and your level of concentration and production has to increase — and that goes for me as well. Just trying to lock into our game plans, to my shots, staying focused at the line, the moves I make and everything like that staying balanced. Knowing that when you see a team a minimum of four times, they’re going to throw a lot of different things at you. Especially when you get a lot of attention.

“So you got to be ready to adjust come playoff time and I just try to make the right reads to stay aggressive.”

The Lakers, of course, have other options. James has led them in scoring so far this postseason and Rui Hachimura has been off-the-charts efficient off the bench while starting guards Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell have had moments when they’ve been the primary scorers.

Defensively, though, Davis is unmatched on the Lakers.

Whereas in the past Davis might have been assigned to defend Jaren Jackson Jr., the Lakers — and Memphis with Jackson, the defensive player of the year — have instead given their best defender freedom to roam and make plays.

“My theory of defense at this level is not what you take away but it’s what you’re willing to live with,” Ham said. “Having a roamer, you’re able to be more aggressive. Guys are able to help. They know they have that built-in help. They can be more aggressive on the ball and compete harder.”

Even on off nights, that’s still the case — just as in Game 2 when Davis scored only 13 points but managed to swat five shots. For the Lakers to get close to where they think they can end up, Davis dominating on both ends of the court is the fastest path there.

The Lakers will have to slow a No. 1 option in Ja Morant, who dominated in the fourth quarter of Game 3, and contend with Dillon Brooks, who won’t be suspended after his flagrant foul two and ejection. Davis knows the Grizzlies will be getting ready to change their coverages after his big Game 3 to make it tougher on him and avoid giving the Lakers a chance to close the series out Wednesday in Memphis.

Still, there’s comfort in knowing the Lakers have other options on Davis’ off nights.

“It gives me a lot of confidence that our guys, our coaches, all of the team has enough confidence in me and are wanting me to be that guy to kind of lead the charge,” Davis said. “And I was able to do that my first 6 ½ years in New Orleans being the No. 1 option and making playoff appearances, winning playoff games or whatever. But obviously it’s different here as a Laker. Especially with playing alongside a guy like LeBron. And the good thing about us, we’re two very selfless stars who just want to win so yesterday was my night, tomorrow might be his.

“Our thing is as long as we get the win. But I feel very confident and am happy they’re confident enough in me to kind of want me to take that No. 1 option.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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