Too big, too physical, too experienced, too talented and too much.
The Denver Nuggets heard this before, of course, when they lost the previous series opener by 23 points to the other LA team less than two weeks ago -- and lived to tell. Well, if the Western Conference finals remains on course after a dominant opener Friday night by the Los Angeles Lakers, then LeBron James and Anthony Davis (and Dwight Howard?) will flex their way to the NBA Finals.
The Lakers used size to overpower the Nuggets, rolling up 32 free throw attempts in the first half of the 126-114 victory, getting Nikola Jokic into early constant foul trouble, which is why all suspense turned to vapor by midway through the third quarter.
“We want to be the most physical team on the floor every time we take the floor no matter what team we’re playing,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “I was happy where that was at tonight. We built a plan to give us the flexibility to play against small teams with Anthony at the five or going big with our two centers.”
Jokic was simply outnumbered, having to deal with Howard and Davis and couldn’t elevate his team as LeBron did his. But that was the Lakers’ plan, not only from the start of this series, but last summer when they added Howard to compliment the LeBron-AD nucleus. Loading up on height was done with an eye toward the postseason, just in case the Lakers saw Jokic along the way.They just didn’t anticipate seeing him here in the West finals -- but no need to pile on the Clippers any further.
We have to do something different with him. It was too easy. He did not feel us.
Howard was a wandering and unwanted soul for much of last summer when he was unceremoniously cut loose by the Wizards, his fourth team in four years. His career, while headed toward Springfield and the Hall of Fame someday, had taken a wicked detour, caused by a back injury -- he would require surgery for it -- and a poor locker room image.
The Lakers signed him on the cheap, on a non-guaranteed deal at that, which was a reflection of where Howard stood around the league, an embarrassing plight for an eight-time All-Star and former three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
A year later, the Lakers and Howard are looking wiser right now for choosing each other. He was clearly the X-factor for Los Angeles in Game 1 against Denver after playing sparingly in the previous series against the small-ball Houston Rockets. He targeted Jokic almost immediately after checking into the game, baiting the Nuggets star into costly fouls that sent Jokic to the bench for much of the second quarter. Meanwhile, Howard also made himself a presence offensively by catching lob passes from LeBron and Rajon Rondo for easy buckets.
As a reward, Howard started the second half over JaVale McGee, and within minutes, the game was essentially over. Howard finished with 13 points in 16 minutes. You could argue that, at one stretch, Howard was the second-best big man on the floor after Davis and ahead of Jokic. The Lakers can’t lose in that situation.
“I liked his energy,” Vogel said. “Dwight has a physical presence and this is going to be a physical series.”
As for Davis, he punished the Nuggets repeatedly and especially thrived with Jokic sitting with foul trouble. Because Davis is such a tough assignment given his shooting range and ability to score around the rim, Jokic is more vulnerable to fouls against the Lakers than in the previous two rounds when he faced Rudy Gobert and Ivica Zubac, a pair of centers who aren’t primary options. Basically, Jokic must expend energy at both ends of the floor because of Davis.
“We have to do something different with him,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said of Davis. “It was too easy. He did not feel us.”
Davis finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds, while LeBron added 15 mainly because he wasn’t needed; he also added 12 assists.
“We followed the game plan, try not to foul, trust our game plan and what we’ve been doing throughout this whole year,” said LeBron. “We got a lot of length out there. Having that type of size and athleticism gives us an advantage.”
The Nuggets are perplexed, not only over the Lakers’ size, but their own penchant for collecting fouls. The Lakers shot 24 free throws in the second quarter alone, and Malone was anxious to see the video replay of a majority of those foul calls.
Regardless, he added: “We have to be a little bit smarter. We didn’t guard anybody. We’re not going to beat that team by putting them on the foul line 37 times. It was an extreme advantage for the Lakers in that first half. We can learn from our losses and see what we can do better to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Lakers were taking no special satisfaction in capturing an opening victory against a Denver team that rallied from a pair of 3-1 deficits to reach this point. If anything, most of the postgame emotion was generated by LeBron over getting what he thought was a lack of respect in the MVP voting; he finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo. If that becomes a battle cry for LeBron for the rest of this series, then it’s one more worry for the Nuggets.
“This is a historic type of resilient team,” Vogel said. “We got to make sure we put our foot on the gas.”
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