What’s the deal with Davis’ poor performances?

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina wonders why Anthony Davis has struggled to play well following big games this postseason.

Two days ago, the Los Angeles Lakers had a big man that played with dominance and destroyed any defender in his way. The Lakers currently have a big man that played with sluggishness and allowed circumstances to get in his way.

Yes, we’re talking about Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ star that always leaves you guessing on if he will stay healthy and how well he will play on any given night. It might be unfair for Charles Barkley to dismissively address Davis as “Street Clothes” given that injuries are mostly uncontrollable. But it is fair to view Davis as “Jekyll and Hyde,” given that his dueling identities are mostly controllable.

The Lakers labored through a 127-100 loss to the Warriors in Game 2 of their second-round series on Thursday, and most of the reasons point to Davis. He finished with 11 points on 5-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds. He collected more turnovers (four) than blocks (three) and just as many assists (four). And he had only one free-throw attempt.

What happened to the Davis that led the Lakers to a 117-112 Game 1 win over the Warriors with 30 points on 11-for-19 shooting? What happened to the Davis that punished Golden State with shots at the rim, from the block and at the free-throw line (8-for-8). What happened to the Davis that inhibited the Warriors from attacking the basket and just hoisting 3s? What happened to the Davis that blocked a late Stephen Curry floater and rebounded a late Jordan Poole miss?

The Lakers better hope that Davis just prepared for Game 3 early after logging only 33 minutes and sitting out the entire fourth quarter during their Game 2 blowout loss. By Saturday, Davis presumably will be more motivated, energetic and focused in front of the Lakers’ home crowd. But even when accounting for Davis playing two days after logging 44 minutes in Game 1, why does Davis keep doing this to the Lakers?

Why does he give the Lakers hope that he has become the consistently dominant star they envisioned him to be before suggesting otherwise? Why does he appear completely unstoppable in one game and then completely ineffective in another one? Why can he excel in one game regardless of play calls or defensive schemes and then suggest his performances depend on those variables in other games?

No doubt, it seemed inevitable Game 2 would look different than Game 1. The Warriors have championship pedigree that includes making plenty of in-series adjustments. After playing an exhausting seven-game series against the Kings, the Warriors approached Game 1 with a feel-out process both to avoid burnout and to prepare for another long playoff bout. Considering the Lakers had three days in between games following their six-game tussle with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers wanted to throw a first punch and take advantage of the additional rest.

The Warriors also won Game 2 for reasons beyond Davis’ poor play. Warriors guard Klay Thompson scored 30 points while shooting 11-for-18 overall and 8-for-11 from 3-point range. After scoring 21 points on a 9-for-13 clip in the first half, LeBron James labored through the third quarter with two points while going 1-for-5 from the field and missing all three of his 3s before sitting during the entire fourth quarter. The Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves and Jarred Vanderbilt went a combined 10-for-30 from the field.

But it’s hard to accept that Davis could look so dramatically different in Game 2 than in Game 1 just because of circumstances.

I’m not buying that Davis couldn’t excel as much because the Warriors started JaMychal Green over an ill Kevon Looney to space the floor. Green had 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting, and his presence forced Davis to extend his defense outside of the paint. But while it’s unfair for Davis to defend all five positions at once, it’s not unfair to expect Davis to be able to cover any position when needed.

I’m not accepting that Davis couldn’t dominate offensively because the Warriors circled him on the scouting report. Sure, Draymond Green avoided foul trouble as he experienced in Game 1. James (23 points) and Rui Hachimura (21) picked up some of the scoring slack because of the attention Davis attracted. But that still doesn’t explain Davis’ lack of aggression to put pressure on the Warriors’ defense. Golden State also prioritized Davis in Game 1, but that didn’t stop him from feasting.

I’m skeptical that Davis struggled just because of the heavy workload he had in Game 1. The Lakers didn’t practice on Wednesday and didn’t hold a shootaround on Thursday. He spent that time recovering and receiving treatment. Barring suffering a major ailment that has been kept secret, it’s hard to believe that short turnaround time would make someone of Davis’ caliber so limited.  

To be clear, it’s unreasonable to expect Davis to have 30 points and 23 rebounds in every contest as he did in Game 1. In the Lakers’ first-round series against Memphis, Davis followed up 31-point performances in Game 3 and Game 5 with more modest showings in Game 4 (12 points) and Game 6 (16). But in those games, Davis still excelled defensively, committed hustle plays and impacted the game in a positive way.

Therefore, we shouldn’t necessarily judge Davis game-to-game just by how many points he scores. But he should be judged with how he impacts the game, makes adjustments and fights through adversity. Davis’ coaches and teammates have raved all season on how he has improved in those areas. The Lakers have also pointed out Davis has thrived more consistently since the front office improved the team’s roster before the trade deadline. And, of course, Davis has avoided any major injury since missing a combined 23 games both to heal a right foot injury (Dec. 18- Jan. 24) and for maintenance purposes on back-to-backs (Jan. 30, March 1, March 15).

If Davis is to have his Lakers jersey retired as James argued he will following his strong Game 1, he can’t routinely have the kind of dud performances he had in Game 2. If the Lakers are to seriously compete for an NBA title this season, let alone dispatch the Warriors in the second round, Davis can’t have these kind of games, either.

Fortunately for the Lakers, Davis has proven he can bounce back from poor showing. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Davis has followed that cycle too many times already. Simply put, star players aren’t just valued on how dominant they can be in any single game They are valued on how dominant they can be in every single game.

After fulfilling that job description valiantly during the Lakers’ championship run three years ago, Davis has since failed to live up to that standard.  In the next two 1/2 seasons, Davis’ injuries and the Lakers’ faulty roster partly explained the shift. Since the Lakers upgraded their roster before trade deadline, though, Davis cannot fall back on those excuses anymore.

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.