LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After his shot dropped to beat the buzzer, win the game and lift the Los Angeles Lakers to just two wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010, Anthony Davis shouted out one word that said it all: “Kobe!”
Davis’ 3-pointer from the left wing won the game 105-103 as time expired, put L.A. up 2-0 over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals and improved L.A.’s postseason record to 3-0 when wearing the alternative “Black Mamba” uniforms, which Kobe Bryant helped design several years before his death.
“Obviously we’re representing him,” said Davis, who scored 10 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter. “Especially in those jerseys, it’s his jersey, one he created, and any time we put it on, we want to win.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel reminded his team late in the fourth quarter of the power of their uniforms, which was picked up on the TNT telecast during a huddle, as the Nuggets mounted a comeback.
“He said, ‘Look at the jerseys you have on. He would have made big-time plays. So it’s time for us to make big-time plays,’” Davis said, paraphrasing Vogel. “Just looking down at the jersey and Coach telling us, it’s a constant reminder that Kobe is with us, and we kind of have the spirit in those jerseys.”
Bryant and his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, in January. The current Lakers team dedicated the rest of its season to the franchise’s star, who played all 20 seasons of his career for the purple and gold. Davis and LeBron James got tattoos to honor Bryant, the team chants “1-2-3 Mamba!” to break huddles, and the players wear the snakeskin-print jerseys.
They first wore them on Aug. 24 — 8/24 on the calendar, a tribute to the two numbers Bryant wore in L.A. — in the first round against Portland. Then they wore them for Game 2 in each of the next two rounds. Gianna, who is remembered on the jersey with a white heart with the No. 2 in the middle, wore that number for her prep basketball team.
Davis’ shot wouldn’t have been necessary had the Lakers not squandered a 16-point lead in the third quarter and an eight-point edge with less than three minutes to go in the fourth. Denver’s Nikola Jokic scored the Nuggets’ final 12 points, including a hook shot over Davis with 20.8 seconds left to give his team the lead.
That’s when Rajon Rondo, who wasn’t in the game at the time, told Davis that it was time for him to get Jokic back. He took the ball into his own hands to do so.
“He came over and said, ‘Different passer?’” Vogel recalled. “I’m like, ‘Heck, yeah. Let’s go. Let’s get him in.’”
Rondo made the inbounds pass from the baseline with 2.1 seconds remaining. There was an option, of course, to go to James, who has hit five playoff buzzer-beating game winners in his career — the most in NBA history. But ultimately, Rondo found a better option in Davis.
“I think I made eye contact with every player on my team on that play,” Rondo said. “My first look was Kenny [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] backdoor. That wasn’t there. Danny [Green] backdoor. That wasn’t there. Bron and I looked eye-to-eye, but he didn’t move, and then I saw AD coming on the outside and just tried to get it to him on time, on target. I had Joker on me, so obviously, I couldn’t throw the lob pass, and he did the rest.”
It was the type of moment that makes one wonder what Davis can do with the rest of his career. He is now in his eighth season and showing what he’s capable of in big games after playing on lesser teams in New Orleans. Both Rondo and Jokic called Davis, who is averaging 34 points on 52.3% from the floor, 42.9% from 3 and 86.4% from the foul line in the series, the best offensive player in the league.
James recalled a shot from the left wing that Davis missed on March 10 that would have won the Lakers a game against the Brooklyn Nets — that ended up being L.A.’s last game before the league went on hiatus because of COVID-19 — as evidence of the big man’s growing confidence.
“It’s not about making a shot. It’s about having a belief of just taking it, for one, and living with the result,” James said. “He was down on himself, but at the end of the day, I told him, if you’re open, [shoot it] … It’s just the confidence to take the shot.”
Now Davis has the confidence that comes from knowing that he has as many buzzer-beating, game-winning shots in the playoffs as Bryant did, matching the Bryant pull-up jumper in Game 4 of the Lakers’ 2006 first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
“We want to embody what Kobe Bryant stood for and honor his memory. Obviously, there are certain games where we are going to feel it a little bit more than others,” Vogel said. “When we have that uniform on, I think we feel it more than others. That’s a shot Kobe Bryant would hit.
“To me, AD coming off just flying to the wing like that, catch-and-shoot with the biggest game on the line of our season, nothing but net, it’s a Mamba shot.”