The Lakers (0-1) remain in Denver to face the Nuggets (1-0) in Game 2 of their Western Conference Finals playoff series. The game tips at 5:30 p.m. PT on ESPN and 710 ESPN radio.
Below are three things to know ahead of the matchup:
With Nikola Jokic leading the way, the Nuggets came out of the Game 1 gates as if they were playing in Game 7, with a blitzkrieg that quickly put the Lakers in a double-digit hole. With Anthony Davis drawing the initial assignment, the Serbian center had amassed quite a stat line through three quarters.
But in the fourth quarter, the Lakers held Jokic to just three points, all at the foul line, with two boards, two assists and two turnovers.
Some of that could have been general fatigue, so heavy was the load he carried in the first three periods. Some may have been Denver’s feeding of Jamal Murray, who scored eight of his 31 points in the fourth quarter. But some was surely the presence of Rui Hachimura on Jokic defensively, getting into his legs and making him move east and west, with Davis – having been moved off Jokic helping off his man, Aaron Gordon, to swarm Jokic at the rim.
“We said it since Day 1, (Jokic) isn’t a guy that one guy is going to be able to neutralize,” said Darvin Ham.
It's not just an adjustment, but part of the overall plan going into the series that had Davis off Jokic, so that he could utilize his full array of defensive skills, while still accounting for spacing on offense since Hachimura can score at all three levels.
“Something that we just went to, a little adjustment,” said Davis. “Different adjustment just throughout the course of the game. We did end up liking it. Stayed with it for a while. Maybe something we go to in Game 2, once we go back and look at the film. But just thinking about it right now, something that we liked. Just to also have me roaming and things like that.”
Defending two players at the same time is, of course, not easy! Yet and still, Anthony Davis is playing the best defensive basketball of anybody in the world right now, and he can handle a heavy burden.
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks … I gotta figure it out,” he said. “That’s it. I gotta help everybody. That’s my job on this team to help everyone defensively, protect guys. Obviously, Gordon is a different beast than anyone else we’ve played this playoffs when I’m that roamer guy. He can jump, they throw lobs to him, he’s good sealing in the paint, offensive rebounds, things like that.
“I can’t just be helping too much and let him get boards which he got late game, with me doing that with Rui and Jokic. You gotta mix up pitches, I gotta read the flow of the game and decide, if Rui got him, do I fully commit and just go box out Gordon, or do I go to help.”
How Davis especially, but also Hachimura and LeBron – who will also continue to see some time on Jokic – navigate that two-step dance will be integral to how the series plays out.
DAVIS ON OFFENSE
Anthony Davis has largely been terrific on the offensive end of the floor throughout the postseason, with an average of 25.9 points on 56.3 percent from the field despite drawing top personnel from two elite defenses against Memphis and Golden State.
But Denver doesn’t have a Jaren Jackson Jr., or a Draymond Green to help the primary defender – Nikola Jokic – and they chose not to double team him, with Aaron Gordon usually occupied on LeBron James. As a result, Davis went off for 40 points on 14 of 23 FG’s in Game 1, despite starting the game 2 for 8 from the field.
“AD was phenomenal, 40 and 10, changed shots at the rim,” said LeBron. “But he's been -- AD has been great all postseason, so we are not worried about that. You know, so we just have to do our job, as well, myself, chipping in, everybody down the ladder from there. It's nothing that surprised us about AD's performance.
“We have to do a great job of just backing him up, not only on the offensive end to relieve pressure off of him but also on the defensive end, as well. When he's changing shots, we have to clean glass, we have to help, we have to make our rotations clean. That allows us to do what we need to do offensively.”
The question ahead of Game 2 is will Denver adjust to how they played Davis, and bring another body in his direction to try and deter the relatively easy looks he’s getting against Jokic in drop coverage. If so, they’d be conceding open shots to capable shot makers like Austin Reaves (five triples made in Game 1), D’Angelo Russell or Dennis Schröder/Rui Hachimura/Lonnie Walker IV. Regardless, Davis should get good looks at the basket throughout this series.
Both the Lakers and Nuggets have been terrific transition offense teams in the postseason, with Denver ranking second with 16.6 fast break points per game, and the Lakers third with 16.0.
Both teams have also struggled to contain their opponents in transition, with Denver allowing 15.3 per game – Phoenix especially hurt them in Round 2 – and the Lakers 14.2.
In Game 1, Denver outscored L.A. 19-13, including an 8-3 edge in the first quarter, that made the biggest difference in setting the tempo of the game.
“They're an opportunistic transition team, but they do it really efficient, get a lot of
good stuff when they do run, and it's just us and our defense,” said Darvin Ham. “That's the way it's built out. Being great in transition, being great in pick-and-roll, off-ball actions, post-up, isos.”
The Lakers did get good shots in the half court, making their transition game perhaps a bit less necessary than in the previous two series, but they certainly can’t lose that game to Denver and expect to win.
The other primary area of concern was defensive rebounding; the Nuggets had a 15-5 advantage, and a 9-1 blowout in the first quarter alone. That’s obviously not tenable for LAL.
“Hats off to them,” offered Ham. “They came out. They defended their home floor, a lot, a lot of long rebounds and we gave them way too many second-chance points, offensive-rebounding opportunities and 50/50 balls for that matter. We've got to
be better in transition, and we can't foul them. We've got to be more disciplined showing our hands when we are guarding (Denver).”