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Lakers star Anthony Davis in 2020 form as defensive ‘anchor’

There was this look of familiarity in Anthony Davis on Sunday, watching him play a cat-and-mouse game with All-Star guard Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies as he tried to anchor the Lakers’ defense in the playoff series opener.

When the Lakers made their run to the NBA title in 2020, this version of Davis did everything for his team’s defense, helping smother guards such as Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Jamal Murray, forward Jimmy Butler and center Nikola Jokic.

He made huge shots and dominated in the offensive paint, but Davis’ defense left the biggest imprint on those playoffs.

On Sunday, Davis scored 22 points in the 128-112 upset win, third most for the Lakers. Defensively, he was a superstar. He finished with 12 rebounds. Seven blocked shots. Three steals. He altered shots and stopped drives, picking up just one foul.

“That’s crazy,” Lakers guard Dennis Schroder said as he went through the stat line Tuesday. “It’s insane.”

The Lakers will try to go up 2-0 on the Grizzlies on Wednesday night in Memphis, Davis’ defensive prowess about to be overshadowed.

Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr. — the same kind of do-everything defender — earned the NBA’s defensive player of the year award Monday. Davis, despite making four NBA All-Defensive teams, has never won that award.

His influence internally, though, is without question, as coach Darvin Ham wisely built his defense around Davis and his versatility and smarts.

Either dropping back into the paint or switching on the perimeter, Davis had the biggest effect on the game Sunday with his defensive activity.

“On the offensive end, for him, people are double teaming him. And he always makes the right decision and always tries to find the right man or the open man,” Schroder told The Times after Tuesday’s practice. “But on the defensive end, he’s our anchor. He does so much for us.”

That job has increasingly included Davis getting after teammates when there’s a defensive breakdown.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis elevates for a shot over Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks during Game 1 on Sunday.

(Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Earlier in the season, Lakers players and coaches said the team suffered from a lack of communication and accountability. However, after the trade deadline balanced the roster and gave the Lakers a clearer hierarchy, the communication channels opened.

As Davis discovered that he has a large “ownership” on the team’s fortunes, something his teammates have sensed, his on-court demeanor has changed. He has been more forceful, more willing to verbalize disappointment with blown coverages and mistakes. With the Lakers having better communication over the last two months, it has helped the team accelerate the learning curve from a lack of continuity.

“It’s winning time. It’s playoffs,” Lakers forward Troy Brown Jr. said. “You can’t take any of that s— serious or to the heart if we’re trying to win. So if in the moment you get yelled at, it’s just next play. You have to hear what the guy is saying and move on to the next play. It’s not harsh or to demoralize anyone or anything like that. That’s just part of a leadership role. Like we’ve got to hold each other accountable.”

Accountability will be key Wednesday as the Lakers head into an unknown situation. Morant is questionable because of a right hand injury he suffered near the end of Game 1, the Grizzlies potentially down another key player while starting center Steven Adams and backup power forward Brandon Clarke remain out.

“It’s difficult,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said of not knowing about Morant‘s availability. “It’s so big of a question mark you don’t know if he’s going to play, if he’s not going to play. We just take care of our work and prepare for everything, every possible outcome, both ways. So that’s really the plan going forward.”

It’s safe to assume Memphis will play even harder and more focused regardless Wednesday, the fear of trailing the Lakers 2-0 in a best-of-seven series a tremendous motivator to earn a split here before heading to Los Angeles for a pair of games.

To fight that off, Ham said, the Lakers have to continue to build on what they accomplished Sunday.

“As long as we come out highly competitive, communicating, we’re giving multiple efforts, it doesn’t matter who’s in their lineup,” Ham said. “We respect them wholeheartedly. They’re a hell of a ballclub. There’s a reason they’ve been at the top of the food chain the entire year, the last couple of years.

“No matter who’s in the lineup, who’s out of the lineup, our work is going to be cut out for us. They’re a highly competitive group with a lot of energy. They’re going to come with a focus to even out the series and represent on their home floor. So we’ll approach it as such.”

As the stakes have been raised by the playoffs, though, Davis’ approach has undoubtedly tightened with his expectations for himself and the team increasing as the Lakers begin to realize their postseason potential.

“Everyone being on the same page and sharing dialog and communication — I think when you have that, there’s a greater chance you end up on the positive side of things because, again, no one is trying to outdo the other or withhold information,” Ham said. “Everyone is trying to pitch in and do their part and make sure we succeed.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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