This is an ode to the Black Mamba. In 2009, the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets met up in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers knocked off the Nuggets in six games to move on the NBA Finals. The then-led Kobe Bryant Lakers waxed Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in five games to the claim the first of two straight titles.
Eleven years later, the names on the back of the jerseys may have changed from the two teams, but the results are the same. Lakers win. Instead of Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have an updated version of a super duo in Lebron James and Anthony Davis. Bryant and Gasol were faced to match up against Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, and J.R. Smith.
As the story goes, the Lakers prevailed. And so, instead of Anthony, Smith, and Billups to deal with, James and Davis were faced with the task of slowing down Denver’s hotshot stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in this series. The Utah Jazz could not do it. The Los Angeles Clippers could not do it.
Like the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, both the Jazz and Clippers held 3-1 lead in respective series only to see Murray and Jokic go off and lead the Nuggets to victory in the first and second rounds. James and Davis were not about to let that happen for the third time. In a series closeout scenario in Game 5, James posted a triple-double to help the Lakers secure a hard-fought 117-107 win against the scrappy Nuggets.
For the record, the numbers James put up in Game 5 were 38 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. Winning time required James to be at his best.
“I’ve always had the mindset that in a close-out game for me personally, I’m just as desperate as the team that we are trying to close out,” James said after the game. “I don’t want to play another game. And if we are in a position where we can win that game, that’s just my mindset. Does it always go that route? No, because I don’t believe I’m undefeated. I’m not undefeated in close-out games. My mindset is that I do not — if we have played well enough and we are in the fourth quarter and we have a chance to win, I do not want to play another game.”
The series lead up to James’ Game 5 dominance was four games of conflicting wills going at one another with the Lakers staving off the Nuggets with determination and spectacular play. When Davis connected for a buzzer-beater to lift the Lakers to a 105-103 Game 2 win, the Nuggets didn’t roll over in Game 3. Denver outshot and outrebound (44-25) the Lakers on their way to a 114-106 win.
“It happens. Always tougher to lose,” Murray said in explaining the Nuggets being able to come back to win Game 3 after a dagger loss in the second game of the series. “Most important part of it is to bounce back with the right mentality, not let it get you down. I thought today we had a hit-first mentality, especially in the first quarter. Kind of took off from there. We got everybody into a groove. Guys were playing at a higher rate, we were rebounding, running. We just had a flow. Those games hurt, but it feels better when you bounce back the way we did tonight.”
The Lakers restored order in the series with a punctuating 114-108 win in Game 4. Davis scored 34 points, and James, with the game on the line, decided to check the mercurial Murray defensively late in the fourth quarter.
“I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going,” James said. “The kid is special. He has an array of shots. Triple threat from the three, mid-range and also in the paint. For me, it’s just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results.”
This series could have teetered either way. Davis made sure it would swing in favor of the Lakers with his 3-point, game-capper with no time on the clock in Game 2.
“I’ve never hit a game-winner like that before, so to hit like that and to be a 3, it’s a special moment for me,” Davis said.
Was it the uniforms or was it the ghost of the Black Mamba whispering in his ear? When Davis completed his 31-point, nine-rebound and two assist night with a deep corner 3-point shot to give the Lakers an improbable Game 2 win, he flexed the Laker legacy of big moments in the postseason.
Davis’ shot, swishing through the nets with zero time remaining in the fourth quarter was a basket drawn right out of the Bryant playbook. It was certainly Laker-like. As a result of his big shot, the Lakers are playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
“He’s hit countless shots like that to win games, whether it’s in the playoffs, Finals,” Davis of Bryant. “But it was a special one for me. Special one for my teammates. I told ‘Bron, in L.A., right before the hiatus against the Brooklyn Nets, same spot, slightly different play and I missed a shot. I was upset with myself. And he said, “Man, we gonna live or die with you shooting that shot.” I got the same opportunity tonight. Ready to make it. Special moment for me. Special moment for the team. Especially in a situation like trying to go up 2-0 against a special team who are great competitors and going to fight for the entire 48 minutes. To do something like that, and with the jersey we wore tonight, it just makes it even more special.”
Channeling his inner-Black Mamba, Davis became the seventh Laker to hit buzzer-beaters in the postseason, joining Bryant, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry, among others to do so. That’s some pretty good company to keep.
“Well, we want to embody what Kobe Bryant stood for and honor his memory,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously, there are certain games where we are going to feel it a little bit more than others. 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.”
Davis’ game-winning shot proved to be the dagger against a resilient Nuggets squad that have come back from 3-1 deficits against the Clippers (second round) and Jazz (first round) in this year’s unusual playoff format. If the Nuggets were successful in rallying back from a third-quarter, 16-point hole that they appeared to climb out of the complexity of this series would have been altered.
Davis connecting on his game-ending bucket was a big blow to Denver’s dreams of reaching the NBA Finals. James, who knotted a double-double against Denver in Game 2 with 26 points and 11 rebounds, said making the shot is one thing. Just having the nerve to take the shot in the first place is a different beast of its own.
“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. “I think right back to our game right before COVID hit. We played Brooklyn at home and he had a similar shot right on that left wing in front of their bench to win the game and he missed it. He was down on himself, but at the end of the day, I told him, if you’re open, and I was able to drive that particular game and find him wide open and he just missed it. But it’s just the confidence to take the shot. You’re not going to make them all, but the belief to just take it and live with the results is what it’s all about. Tonight was his moment. Tonight was his moment to find a space, hunt the ball down and one of our top 10 assists leaders, Rondo, found him and he knocked it down. A big-time play.”
The Nuggets have made one big play after another during their postseason run. During the first two rounds against the Jazz and Clippers, Denver was laced with big plays in snatching playoff victories from the jaws of defeat from both of those teams. The main catalysts for the Nuggets during their surprise surge has been the electric Murray and Jokic.
Denver’s two stars once again came up huge when it mattered for their ballclub in the first two rounds. In Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Murray tallied 25 points, while Jokic poured in 30, including a 10-foot hook shot with 20.8 seconds remaining to give the Nuggets a 103-102 edge. Denver’s problem is that they left too much time on the clock for Laker magic to happen.
With 2.1 seconds left on the clock, guard Rajon Rondo fed Davis who didn’t even blink in taking the 3-point shot. When the ball finally swished through the hoop, it was the eighth time the Lakers had won a game with a buzzer-beater in the postseason. There would be no champagne bottles being uncorked in Denver’s locker room on this night.
“I mean, we were there before, the second or third game against Clippers,” Jokic said after the game. “I think we had it and we kind of lost it in the end. We put the effort there, we put in the fight. I think we played well most of the game. We were down, we came back again. We’re going to keep our heads up and on to the next one.”
Denver head coach Mike Malone said his team doesn’t get any type of brownie points for coming up on the short end of losing Game 2.
“No silver linings,” Malone said. “I mean, this is the Western Conference Finals, so no moral victories, no silver linings. Gave ourselves a chance to win tonight. Obviously, Anthony Davis hits a big three to win the game at the buzzer. We’ll watch the film, see what happened on that last play. The message is we’re down 2-0. Let’s go out and win Game 3.”
Malone’s issue is not Vogel’s worry, thanks to Davis coming up big at the right moment with his timely 3-point make.
“Obviously, huge significance,” said Vogel. “We’re up 2-0 now as a result of that. Just a big-time shot by a big-time player. We have a set where we can basically isolate LeBron on a baseline out-of-bounds situation like that. Rondo came up and whispered in my ear about do I want him in there as a passer, and obviously, I said heck yes. He made a great read on it, and Anthony flew over to the wing. We talked about missing that shot, similar type of shot, against Brooklyn before the hiatus. Like I said, big-time shot by a big-time player.”
Davis’ game-winning 3-pointer is the biggest shot he’s made during his eight-year career. After spending his first seven years in the NBA playing for the New Orleans Pelicans (formerly New Orleans Hornets), Davis is now seeing some real fruit to the work he has put in on the court.
For one, Davis gets to play alongside the best player in the game in James. He takes the floor representing one of the most distinguished sports franchises in the world. And finally, he is now seen as that guy who can help lead the Lakers to their 17th NBA title. Hitting his playoff game-winner was once a childhood dream. It’s a reality now.
“It’s a huge dream,” Davis said. “To make it even better, kind of wish it was in Staples tonight with the fans that support us all year. But still to be in that moment and hit a shot like that is still a dream. I’ve never hit a game-winner like that before, so to hit like that and to be a 3, it’s a special moment for me. Something I’ll let soak in for the next couple hours and then tomorrow try to get ready and prep for Game 3.”
Davis and the Lakers will no doubt be carrying Bryant with them as they continue their chase to make it to the NBA Finals. The last time the Lakers played in the NBA Finals was when Bryant led the team to a 4-3 series win against the Boston Celtics in 2010. And perhaps the Lakers will continue to wear the ‘Black Mamba” jerseys they wore against the Nuggets in Game 2.
So far, the Lakers have not been beaten when they have put on the black snakeskin jerseys in which Bryant c0-created.
“We just play a little different,” Davis said. “Our swagger is a little different. Every time we put on those jerseys, obviously we’re representing him. Especially in those jerseys, it’s his jersey, one he created, and any time we put it on we want to win. Coach made sure that we knew that in the huddle. 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,” like with six minutes left in the game. Guys were able to do that. So 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.”