Three Things to Know 20200924

Lakers vs. Nuggets, Game 4: Three Things to Know (9/24/20)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

The Lakers fell short in Game 3 despite a fierce fourth quarter comeback, falling 114-106 to Denver to see their lead cut in half, to 2-1 for the Western Conference Finals. Here are three things to know before Thursday’s Game 4:

One statistic from Game 3 tells almost the entire story: Denver out-rebounded the Lakers 44-25.

From the opening tip, the Nuggets played with the desperation of a team determined not to go down 3-0 in the series, especially in the paint. Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant went after every rebound and loose ball, ultimately holding Anthony Davis (43 minutes) to only two rebounds, and Dwight Howard (14 minutes) to one. LeBron James (37 minutes) was the only Laker to finish with at least 10 boards. Denver also grabbed nine offensive boards to L.A.’s four, allowing an 11-4 edge in second-chance points.

While the board battle told the story through numbers, the eye test relayed that L.A. simply didn’t bring their best effort.

“We didn’t play our best game,” said coach Frank Vogel. “We weren’t as sharp as we could have been (especially) to start the game; as a result, we created a deficit for ourselves that was tough to overcome. And, we had a bad shooting night, our worst since Game 1 vs. Portland."

Indeed, the Lakers hit only six of their 26 3-point attempts (23.1 percent), and 14 of 22 free throws* (63.6%), even though a late barrage of layups and dunks in a wild fourth quarter comeback helped them shoot over 50 percent overall.
*Denver also attempted 29 free throws, hitting 23 for a +9 at the charity stripe.

When Game 4 starts, look no further than the rebounding contest in the first quarter, which should show increased activity from the Lakers.

Another area L.A. can quickly improve for Game 4: taking care of the basketball. Before the wild fourth quarter in which a zone defense that Vogel called “a junk defense” that wasn’t sustainable forced an absurd nine Nuggets turnovers in the period, L.A. committed 13 miscues, to 11 from Denver. It was worse in Game 2, when L.A. gave their opponent many additional chances at their basket due to 24 turnovers. For context, L.A. turned it over 15.4 times per game in the regular season (26th in the NBA).

We know that Denver has a dangerous offense, and turnovers helped get them even easier baskets. Yet, that wasn’t necessarily the biggest problem. Those easier baskets were more likely to lead to points, which gave the Nuggets a better chance to track back in transition, and set their defense. That, in turn, limited L.A.’s best offensive skill: fastbreak buckets. There’s no better player in transition than LeBron, not now, and not ever. His combination of athleticism, smarts and power make him an absolute terror when he’s coming down hill – which we saw clearly in the fourth quarter of Game 3.

However, LeBron was the biggest turnover culprit, which he identified himself in his postgame interview, saying that as the team’s point guard, the TO’s “start with me,” and he simply has to limit them after six in both Games 2 and 3. The Lakers don’t have to have a big advantage in the turnover game, but when they operate at a deficit, it helps Denver in myriad ways.

In the first two games of the WCF, and really, almost the entire playoffs, the Lakers have gotten a healthy advantage from their bench. Among their most commonly used groups is Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, who have often started second and fourth quarters alongside LeBron James. That group has a net rating of +12.7 in 40 playoff minutes.

Caruso, no surprise, leads the bench players in individual net rating (+9.9), with Rondo (+9.6) and Morris (+8.4) not far behind. Kuz is at +2.4, and all of those numbers were significantly higher before a rough Game 3 against Denver in which Rondo and Morris were both -13 and Caruso -6 as the Nuggets bench got the better of LAL’s.

In Game 1, Rondo and Morris were both +13, and Dwight Howard – the 10th man in Vogel’s rotation in this series after small lineups kept him off the floor against Houston – was a +14, doing a great job on Jokic. Game 2 saw Caruso at +6 and Howard up there again at +10. Since those are the types of numbers more consistent with Rounds 1 and 2 against Portland and Houston, it’s fair to expect a better performance off the pine moving forward against Denver.

The Nuggets also deserve credit for their bench group’s performance in Game 3, which featured a good amount of athleticism in Torrey Craig, Michael Porter, Jr., Mason Plumlee and Monte Morris next to starting holdover Jamal Murray. They took advantage of some minutes in which neither Anthony Davis or Howard were in, getting into L.A.’s paint to score, as well as on the offensive glass.

It played out most notably with a huge Nuggets run to start the 2nd Q. LAL trailed 29-27 after one, before Denver ripped off a 15-2 run that gave them a 44-29 lead, one that the Lakers would spend a great deal of energy trying to erase for the rest of the night. That was likely the difference in the game right there. L.A. did itself no favors, turning the ball over three straight times in a 1-minute span, resulting in eight quick Denver points.

Just like the rebounding and turnover imbalance, the play of L.A.’s bench unit can go a long ways towards a different result in Game 4.

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