The Miami Heat jumped out to an early 13-point lead in Game 1 of The Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, ripping off 23 points in the game's first six-and-a-half minutes. The Lakers called timeout, pulled both LeBron James and Dwight Howard from the game, moved Anthony Davis to center, and proceeded to slash the deficit to four points before James re-entered. They finished the first quarter leading by three, having surrendered only five points after their first substitution.
Davis started the second quarter on the bench after playing the entire first frame. While he sat, the Heat rattled off 15 points over the first four-and-a-half minutes of the quarter. Davis came back into the game with L.A. leading by one, and the Lakers immediately went on a 10-0 run. They bumped their lead up to 17 by quarter's end, after holding Miami to only five points over the final seven minutes of the half.
This, to borrow a phrase, was not just a matter of chance.
In the first Finals game of his career, Davis was a singularly destructive force at both ends of the floor, particularly when he played the 5. The Lakers held the Heat to a 92.2 offensive rating with Davis on the floor, and a comically paltry 71.4 rating in the 23 minutes he played without Howard. They outscored Miami by 25 points in those 23 minutes.
The Heat were blown out in Game 1 for a number of reasons, including the fact they lost starting point guard Goran Dragic late in the second quarter and star center Bam Adebayo midway through the third, while Jimmy Butler played the whole second half on a balky ankle. But the truth is Davis was messing their stuff up before they suffered those crushing injuries.
Outside of that run to start the game, when the Heat were repeatedly running pick-and-rolls at Howard, the gorgeous free-flowing offense that's become their signature turned into a muddy slog. If you want to know why and how that happened, you need look no further than the pterodactyl with a 7-foot-5 wingspan patrolling the middle of the floor.
Once Howard came out of the game and Davis became the primary on Adebayo, Miami's vaunted screening actions - be they pick-and-rolls or dribble-handoffs - completely lost their bite. Sometimes Davis outright switched onto the Heat's ball-handlers or handoff-receivers, and smothered them from there. Sometimes he simply played close to the level of the screen and took away shooters' airspace with his outrageous reach. Sometimes he simply denied them the ball altogether.
Watch this possession, in which Davis stunted to help deny the first handoff to Tyler Herro, then dropped back to corral Dragic on the second handoff, stayed attached to Adebayo to eliminate him as a lob threat, and still blocked the bejeezus out of Dragic's floater:
Or this one, in which he stunted to the nail to cut off a Herro drive in semi-transition, then jumped up to deny a Duncan Robinson handoff, then recovered to blow up an Adebayo-Andre Iguodala side pick-and-roll:
The Heat are used to flowing from one action into the next, but they seemed to be at a loss for what to do when Davis flowed right along with them. Much in the way Adebayo served as a powerful deterrent in the East finals, forcing the Celtics to all but abandon actions that used Daniel Theis as a ball screener, Davis made it almost untenable for the Heat to run their offense through Adebayo - a huge problem because almost everything Miami does offensively flows through their do-it-all center.
Boston's offense, at least, could survive moving away from Theis-centric screening sets, because it had elite off-the-dribble creators who could generate advantages in one-on-one scenarios. (Despite their six-game loss, the Celtics posted a robust 114 offensive rating in the series.) The Heat, particularly with Dragic injured, don't have that luxury.
Besides, it's not like running actions on the opposite side of the floor, or using alternate screeners, proved particularly successful at keeping Davis from mucking up the play.
Take these two possessions, for example. The Heat ran small-small pick-and-rolls both times, but got nothing out of either of them thanks largely to Davis. In the first one, he was pulled all the way over from the corner to contest Herro's layup at the rim, confident in his ability to recover to Jae Crowder and either contest his shot or run him off the arc if need be. In the second, after LeBron made a great rotation to take away the pick-and-pop and force Herro to put the ball on the floor, Davis rotated over on the back line to contest the layup, then still had the second-jump burst to swat the ball away from Derrick Jones Jr. after Herro made the dump-off pass:
Lakers guards deserve a ton of credit for the defensive performance, too. As you can see in the clips, they all did an excellent job fighting over screens and staying attached to Miami's perimeter players. In some cases, it was their work at the point of attack that allowed Davis to destroy everything at the rim. But in many others, it was Davis' length and ability to briefly corral two players at once that allowed those point-of-attack defenders to recover onto ball-handlers. The upshot was that the Lakers executed both ends of the Heat's pick-and-rolls with perfect synchronicity.
The other end of the floor was no less problematic for Miami when it came to dealing with Davis. He obviously had no issue getting his own offense against the Heat's small front line, finishing with a game-high 34 points on 11-21 shooting.
He drilled jumpers, scored from the block, cut along the baseline when LeBron engaged extra defenders, jab-stepped his way to dribble-drives and free throws (he went 10-of-10 from the line), and hauled in three offensive rebounds. He took advantage of Miami's switches, immediately getting post seals and drawing double-teams, which he leveraged with quick and decisive kickouts. He racked up five assists to one turnover.
But the full breadth of Davis' offensive impact is perhaps best understood through the ways he warped Miami's defense when he wasn't scoring, or even touching the ball.
Take a look at how his roll gravity on this possession magnetized Robinson, the strong-side defender who aggressively helped off an excellent shooter one pass away in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, even as Crowder was pulled over from the weak side. That allowed Rajon Rondo to make a simple pass to an open Caldwell-Pope in the corner:
Here's another example of Davis' gravity, this time as a streaker in transition. He beat Adebayo down the floor, which prompted Herro to drop down and prevent him from getting the ball and rumbling all the way to the basket. That forced Herro to recover out to Alex Caruso, which led to an unnecessarily hard closeout that Caruso attacked easily on his way to the hoop:
Here's one more example, this one demonstrating Davis' magnetism as a lob threat. With Adebayo guarding Davis in the dunker spot, LeBron drove out of a high pick-and-roll and spun past Butler to get into the middle. Adebayo momentarily stepped up to deter the drive, but with Davis behind him he retreated almost immediately for fear of the lob, which allowed James to coast in for an uncontested layup:
Those plays could all be described as mistakes for Miami's defense, but they were mistakes Davis caused by virtue of his threat level as a rim-runner and multidimensional scorer.
The Heat can absolutely play better than they did in Game 1, even given their injury situation. The Lakers will struggle to replicate their overall offensive performance in this one, given how effective their role players were. But even accounting for regression to the mean on both sides, it's hard to imagine how the Heat are going to solve the puzzle Davis presents at both ends of the floor, to the point they'll actually be able to tilt this series their way.
Most of the narrative stakes in these Finals have centered on LeBron, and his pursuit of a fourth championship against the team he jilted six years ago. And to be clear, James was quietly excellent in Game 1. But right now, Davis appears to be the central figure in this series. Miami needs to find a way to scheme around him, and fast.
Joe Wolfond is a features writer for theScore.