Sometimes, it's a make-or-miss league. Sometimes, it's a game of attrition.
In Game 3 of their first round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Lakers simply outlasted their opponent, outscoring the Blazers 63-51 in the second half to take a 2-1 series lead with a 116-108 victory on Saturday.
The Blazers have expended a ton of energy just to get here. They played eight critical seeding games plus a play-in game. Through Game 1 of this series, all 10 of their games in Orlando had been within five points in the last five minutes, and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had averaged 42.1 and 41.3 minutes per game, respectively.
"Our guys have held up really well, physically and mentally," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said before Game 3. "I think NBA players in general are very resilient and generally come back ready to play the next game."
After getting blown out in Game 2 on Thursday, the Blazers came back ready to play, for sure. Lillard and McCollum combined for 39 points on 14-for-25 shooting in the first half, pushing Portland to a four-point lead. They often avoided the pick-and-roll defense that smothered them in Game 2 by rejecting screens and going away from the extra defender.
But the Blazers couldn't get any stops in the third quarter, when the Lakers scored 40 points on 25 possessions. And with his team in a seven-point hole, Blazers coach Terry Stotts played Lillard (who played all of the third quarter), McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic the entire fourth.
"I didn't like doing that," Stotts said, "but we had a bad stretch at the end of the third and I just felt like we needed to ride those guys as long as we could. I don't know if the fatigue had anything to do with it or not."
It's hard to think it didn't. The Blazers scored just 12 points on their first 19 points of the final period. Lillard and McCollum combined to shoot 1-for-9 from outside the restricted area over the final 12 minutes, while Nurkic had one particular rough-looking attempt of a scoop shot.
Anthony and LeBron James came into this league together, and there was a pretty good debate about which should have won Rookie of the Year. Seventeen years later, James is remains an indefatigable force, while Anthony can only give the Blazers a flurry of offense here and there. He put together four straight scores in the middle of the third quarter on Saturday and finished with 20 points, but needed 20 shots to get those 20 points and is now 6-for-21 (29%) from mid-range in the series.
James, meanwhile, scored more points in Game 3 (38) than he did in Games 1 and 2 combined (33), shooting 11-for-18 from the floor and 12-for-17 from the free throw line, adding 12 rebounds and eight assists. At the age of 35, he's still going strong, and the win on Saturday gave him 158 playoff wins for his career, moving him into second place all-time.
This was not a one-man show, however.
+6 -- Lakers' point differential with James off the floor.
In the regular season, the Lakers were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with James on the floor (+8.5) than they were with him on the floor (-1.9). That was the eighth biggest differential in the league, and the off-floor number was worse (-3.0 per 100) in the minutes when Anthony Davis was on the floor without James. As great of a season that Davis had, he wasn't able to keep the team afloat without his fellow All-Star.
But the Lakers had good (pre-garbage-time) minutes without James in Game 2 on Thursday and a pair of sequences in Game 3 came when he rested in the second half. Both sequences featured a lot of pick-and-roll with Davis setting screens for Alex Caruso.
The Film - Caruso and AD
At a timeout with 4:35 left in the third and with the Lakers up by just one, Caruso and Kyle Kuzma checked in for James and JaVale McGee, moving Davis to center. And on the next three possessions, the Lakers looked to give Davis space to operate against Hassan Whiteside. Each time down the floor, the other three Lakers cleared to the right side of the floor as Caruso and Davis ran pick-and-roll:
Here's the video:
Play 1. On the first possession out of the timeout, Anfernee Simons trails Caruso around the screen and nobody stops the ball. Whiteside retreats to Davis and, after initially stepping into Caruso's path, Anthony does a heck of a matador impression, allowing Caruso to get all the way to the basket.
Play 2. On the next possession, Caruso goes the other way, puts Simons on his hip, and tries to get to the baseline with a "Smitty." Simons is able to stay in front, but Caruso kicks the ball back to Davis and follows with a screen on Whiteside. Davis gets around Simons and gets an and-one dunk on the baseline.
Play 3. Three possessions later, the Lakers clear the left side of the floor again. Caruso and Davis run the pick-and-roll going to the right, Lillard goes under the screen (instead of over like Simons in Play 1), and Caruso steps back for a 3-pointer.
Three Caruso-Davis pick-and-rolls. Eight points, part of 12-2 run that turned a one-point game into an 11-point cushion late in the third quarter.
One aside: That lineup for the first two possessions above - Caruso and Davis with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Kuzma as floor spacers - seems like a pretty good offensive look for the minutes that James rests. But it only played 11 total minutes in the regular season, wasn't used in Games 1 or 2, and only played 1:56 together in the first and third quarters on Friday. In both halves, Markieff Morris checked in for Green not long after the Caruso and Kuzma subs.
Caruso and Davis weren't done. James checked out again during a timeout with 7:15 to go in the fourth quarter, and the AC and AD combo went right back to work. After McCollum hit a jumper to cut the Lakers' lead to five, they went back to the pick-and-roll (though with Dwight Howard on the floor and Davis at the four) for three straight possessions:
Play 1. Lillard goes under the screen and Whiteside is able to protect the rim because Howard is in the "dunker" spot. But Nurkic is still drawn to Caruso, who gets the ball back to Davis at the right elbow. Nurkic is a little slow with his contest, preferring to not get beat off the dribble.
Play 2. On the next possession, Caruso initially tries to get Davis a drive by handing him the ball and getting in Nurkic's way. But Nurkic is able to get back in front and the Lakers' tandem goes back to the pick-and-pop. Lillard goes under again, but Nurkic switches onto Caruso and Lillard isn't able to recover in time as Davis finds space above the left elbow.
Play 3. On the next possession, with Davis in a groove, Caruso sees Nurkic's positioning and dribbles right at the big man to engage him, and passes back to Davis, wide open again above the right elbow.
Play 4. A few minutes later, James is on the floor, but the Lakers draw up another Caruso-Davis pick-and-roll out of a timeout. This time the Blazers switch it so they can stay attached to Davis. But that gets him isolated against the 6-foot-5 Gary Trent Jr. Anthony shades over to help on the mismatch, and when Davis kicks the ball to James on the right wing, he's able to attack the seam and draw a foul.
Those three scores with James off the floor pushed the lead from five to nine with 5:30 to go. The Blazers never got back to within two possessions.
And the Davis jumpers may have value well beyond Game 3. Over the first 10 games in Orlando, Davis had shot 23-for-94 (24%) from outside the restricted area.
On Friday, James shot 4-for-8 from 3-point range and Davis was 6-for-7 from mid-range. A little regression toward the mean may also result in a better offensive rhythm for an offense that had been struggling and a better chance for the Lakers to beat teams stronger than the one they're currently facing.
Lean on Me
After a first half in which James scored 22 points and Davis scored just six (1-for-3 from the field, 4-for-9 from the line), the big man promised to carry some of the load over the final 24 minutes.
"I told 'Bron at half I got to take some of the pressure off of him," Davis said afterward. "I didn't want him to just carry the team the entire time."
After that six-point first half, Davis had 23 points (on 10-for-15 shooting), six rebounds and five assists after halftime. And key was that two-man game with Caruso when James was off the floor.
The Lakers were hoping to get Rajon Rondo back from a thumb injury on Saturday. But the 14-year vet was a late scratch after suffering back spasms as he warmed up. The Lakers need more playmaking beyond James, whether it comes from Rondo or Caruso.
"The No. 1 thing it does is it allows LeBron to be off the ball some," Vogel said, "which is important to our offense and sustaining his freshness throughout 48 minutes. And Anthony, as a big guy, as much as he can score in a variety of ways, all bigs are dependent on some level on guards to be able to set them up. Rajon has been sort of that guy in the second unit throughout the year. We've missed him. Hopefully we get him back soon. But in the meantime tonight, Alex did a great job setting up AD."
No rest for the weary. There are no two-day breaks in these playoffs and Game 4 is Monday (9 p.m. ET, TNT). So the Blazers will have to summon up the energy to get back at it.
Stotts said that he'll likely stick with the starting lineup that he went to for Game 3, playing Nurkic and Whiteside together on the frontline. The big men were a minus-2 in 15.4 minutes together on Saturday. The Blazers have been outscored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions in their 41 minutes together in the series, but that's much, much better than the differential with one on the floor without the other (-13.1 per 100 in 56 minutes with Nurkic on the floor without Whiteside, -14.9 per 100 in 33 minutes with Whiteside on the floor without Nurkic).
The Lakers will continue to try to take advantage and wear the Blazers down they way they know how.
"We just want to run," Davis said. "Since they've been here, they've been playing like Game 7s. So it's our job to keep putting the pressure on them and keep running at the bigs. That's all we're trying to do.
Making some jumpers helps, too.
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