SAN FRANCISCO — Anthony Davis sat next to LeBron James, watching as James heaped praise upon him.
“The Lakers franchise over the years, over the course of their existence, has always had dominant big men, dominant guys that have been a force at the rim,” James said Tuesday night, after a dominant performance by Davis in the Lakers’ Game 1 win in their Western Conference semifinal series against the Golden State Warriors. “That’s why their jerseys are in the rafters. A.D. will be up there when he’s done playing.”
James went on for another minute in the same vein. Once he finished, Davis patted him on the back.
“I’ll take my watch next week,” James said, smiling at his joke about a quid pro quo. “Or a car.”
Although this series has stirred nostalgia for the years when James and Warriors guard Stephen Curry used to face off every June for the N.B.A. championship, it could hinge on Davis, who has the potential to be the best player in it. He hasn’t always been that, having been prone to injuries and inconsistent play. But on Tuesday night, Davis showed just what his dominance can mean to the Lakers, as he pushed them to a 117-112 win on the road over the defending champion Warriors, wresting away home-court advantage.
Davis finished the game with 30 points, 23 rebounds and 4 blocks. With at least 30 points and 20 rebounds, Davis joined elite company in Lakers playoff history: Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. The most drastic statistical difference between the teams was a direct result of Davis’s play: The Lakers outscored the Warriors inside the paint by 54-28.
“He’s everything for us,” Lakers guard Dennis Schröder said. “Defensively, offensively, big part for this organization. I mean, wasn’t an All-Star, wasn’t the defensive player of the year. He’s taking it serious, doing everything for us, and he’s the anchor.”
That James and Curry were the narrative center of this series made sense. They are two of the best to have ever played in the N.B.A., and each has won four championships. They played against each other in the finals every year from 2015 to 2018, and each has won a championship since then as well — James in 2020 and Curry last season.
This is the first time since 2018 that the two have faced each other in the playoffs, and there were plenty of moments Tuesday night when they commanded the stage.
Before the game, the two shared a laugh at the scorer’s table. Midway through the second quarter, while Davis was shooting free throws, James wandered down the sideline with Curry, who was heading to the Golden State bench. James stayed by Curry’s side until he sat down, and even then continued talking to him.
“He was just joking around about having to guard me all the way till I got to the bench,” Curry said.
But at halftime, James was with Davis. The two of them walked off the court together, shoulder to shoulder, stride for stride.
The scene was reminiscent of their first year together, the 2019-20 championship season, when Davis and James hardly went anywhere without each other and waited for each other to finish their on-court interviews after every game.
The Lakers gave up a lot to acquire Davis the summer before that season, including players who would become critical pieces for other franchises. But Davis seemed to reward the Lakers right away. He was named to All-N.B.A. and All-Defensive first teams. He was a candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He fit perfectly on James’s team.
Part of what made that partnership work so seamlessly was the way their personalities meshed. Davis never needed to be the center of attention. James didn’t mind it, even thrived in it.
“We’re not jealous of each other,” James said during the 2020 N.B.A. finals.
That dynamic came into play on Tuesday night when James and Curry were the center of attention.
Davis might not seek attention, but on the court he requires it, especially when he plays the way he did in Game 1.
“We know that’s what he’s capable of,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s great. We needed every bit of all those points and rebounds and blocked shots, assists as well.”
Though Davis excelled at defending inside the paint, he made his presence felt all over the court. Late in the game, he thwarted the Warriors shortly after Curry tied the game with a heart-stopping 3-pointer with 1 minute 38 seconds remaining that capped a 14-0 run.
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell scored, getting the lead back for the Lakers. Moments later, Curry tried again, this time driving toward the basket, only to have his shot blocked by Davis. With 39.3 seconds left and the Lakers up by 3, Davis grabbed a rebound off a miss by Poole.
Davis was aggressive offensively as well and seemed tireless despite playing 43 minutes 50 seconds, more than any other player. He played the entire second half.
Ham credited the Lakers’ load management during the regular season for Davis’s ability to play big minutes in the playoffs.
Davis’s critics have questioned his durability and his consistency, and not without reason. He has missed games because of injury in every year of his career and played in only 56 games this season.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I don’t care what no one thinks. Only the guys in the locker room, coaching staff, only opinions that I care about. Other than that, I just go out and play basketball, do what I can do to help the team win.”
Davis and James were two of the last remaining players on the court Tuesday night, Davis doing a postgame interview with TNT and James speaking with the Lakers’ regional broadcast channel. Davis briefly interrupted James’s interview to do a personalized handshake before leaving the court.
“It’s going to be a different game,” Davis said, when asked about Game 2 on Thursday. “They’re going to make adjustments; we’re going to make adjustments.” He added: “I’m going to continue to be aggressive.”