They say the close-out game is the toughest, but Game 5 of the first round series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers shouldn’t have been complicated. The Lakers were the 1 seed having found their footing with wins in Games 2, 3 and 4. The Blazers were the 8 seed missing their best player, with Damian Lillard having suffered a right knee injury in Game 4.
The Lakers ultimately took care of business with a 131-122 victory. But the game wasn’t in hand until L.A. went on a 15-2 run in the final few minutes. After allowing the shorthanded Blazers to match them with 68 points on 56 possessions in the first half (when none of the L.A. guards could contain CJ McCollum), the Lakers played just enough defense in the final 24 minutes to advance to the conference semifinals.
LeBron James (36 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) and Anthony Davis (43, nine and four) combined for 79 points on a ridiculous 28-for-37 shooting, just as effective from the outside as they were in the paint.
“We know we’re going to get the majority of the looks,” James said afterward, “but at the same time, we just want to be efficient with our looks. We don’t want to take bad shots. We want to get great shots. And I think tonight was one of those instances where we didn’t settle much. When we had our shot, we took it. When we had our drives, we took it.”
The matchup advantages they had against the Blazers won’t be so pronounced going forward, this will be the worst defense the Lakers face in these playoffs, and the perimeter shooting won’t stay *so hot. But the duo of James and Davis will continue to win games with their unmatched size and skill.
*James, a 35% 3-point shooter in the regular season, shot 12-for-20 from beyond the arc over the last three games. Over the same stretch, Davis, a 35% mid-range shooter in the regular season, shot 14-for-17 (82%) from mid-range.
The Lakers head into a conference semifinals series against the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder, with Houston having taken a 3-2 series lead earlier on Saturday. The Rockets were the only Western Conference team with a winning record (2-1) against the Lakers and Russell Westbrook (38.0 points per game in two games) was the leading scorer against L.A in the regular season.
Every matchup is different and the competition is about to get much more difficult, but the Lakers are obviously in a better place than they were 10 days ago. After really struggling offensively through the seeding games and Game 1 of this series, they put things together in Games 2-5.
Here are a few more numbers to know about the Lakers after the franchise’s first playoff series win in eight years.
1. Shooting disadvantage
34.3% — Lakers’ 3-point percentage in the series.
After Saturday’s games, five teams have advanced to the conference semifinals and another three (all in the West) have 3-2 series leads. The Lakers, with Portland having shot 37.9% from beyond the arc, are the only one of those eight teams that didn’t shoot (or haven’t shot) better than their first-round opponent from 3-point range.
The Lakers did shoot 22 more 3-pointers than the Blazers in the series. So they outscored Portland by six total points from beyond the arc. But the series was won in the paint, where the Lakers outscored the Blazers by 11.6 points per game.
This is who the Lakers are. It’s been written in this space that the Lakers had the biggest differential between how well they shot in the paint (best in the league) and how effectively they shot outside it (bottom five). But their defense also played a role in the points-in-the-paint differential in this series. From the regular season to the first round, the Blazers saw a big drop in their field goal percentage in the paint (from 54.5% to 50.0%) and a smaller drop in the percentage of their shots that came in the paint (from 45% to 44%).
With the last two being the Blazers’ most efficient games of the series, the Lakers dropped from first to fifth in defensive efficiency in the first round. But for the series, the Blazers scored 9.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in the regular season (104.1 vs. 113.2). And with that being the biggest drop among the 16 playoff teams, you can make the argument that the Lakers have had the best defense in the playoffs thus far.
“It’s tough to have a defensive plan where you have to double as much as we had to double in this series,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Saturday. “There’s a lot that goes into that, both corralling the man on the ball and covering things on the back side. We prefer not to double when we don’t have to.
“By doing so as much as we did in this series, it really sharpened us to making sure we’re covering all those areas. I think it definitely improved us. Knowing what they’re capable of kept the sense of urgency throughout the series. We said coming into this that if we’re able to beat the Blazers, that them being such a powerhouse offense is going to help us in later rounds. And hopefully, that’s the case.”
2. Big offense
41% — Percentage of Davis’ minutes that came with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard off the floor.
The playoffs can often make a team abandon what it’s been doing all season. But this series did not elicit more small-ball from the Lakers. (James and Davis at the 4 and 5 is not that small, but you get the idea.) In the regular season, 40% of Davis’ minutes were played at the five, with both McGee and Howard off the floor. In the first round, that percentage barely budged.
The Blazers did play Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside together for 54 total minutes in the series. But they abandoned that look after the first five minutes of Game 4 and the opponents’ size didn’t really affect Vogel’s rotation.
Interestingly, playing big was better offensively for the Lakers, while playing small was better defensively:
• In 97 minutes with Davis on the floor with either McGee or Howard, the Lakers scored 126 points per 100 possessions and allowed 109.
• In 66 minutes with Davis at center, the Lakers scored 111 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 82.
Those numbers parallel Davis’ at-the-4-or-5 on-court numbers from the regular season. Better offense playing big, better defense playing small.
A series against Houston would obviously be a fascinating chess match in regard to the Lakers’ lineups. The Rockets won both meetings after they committed to small-ball, but both James and McGee sat out the Aug. 6 game they played in Orlando. When the two teams met in February, the Lakers were a plus-6 in 16 minutes with Davis on the floor with McGee or Howard and a minus-10 in 24 minutes with Davis at the five.
There’s certainly an argument for trying to bully the Rockets inside and sacrificing some mobility on defense.
3. Caruso Time
+20.2 — Lakers point differential per 100 possessions with Alex Caruso on the floor.
Another question for the Lakers going forward: Who’s the back-up point guard?
They’re hoping to get Rajon Rondo back soon. But Caruso gave them great minutes off the bench against Portland. That +20.2 with Caruso on the floor is the fifth best mark among 101 players who’ve averaged at least 20 minutes in these playoffs. (Davis has the fourth best mark at +22.5.) His pick-and-roll play with Davis fueled a couple of important runs in Game 3, and the Lakers’ defense has been at its best, allowing 90.9 points per 100 possessions, with Caruso on the floor. (There’s a link between that number and the better defense with Davis at center.)
Houston would be a very different matchup. On defense, Caruso would be tasked with defending bigger and stronger guards than those of the Blazers. And on offense, the Rockets’ switch-everything scheme would make it tougher for him to get into the paint and make plays. Caruso’s one weakness is his perimeter shooting, and he was just 3-for-15 from 3-point range in the Portland series.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) August 30, 2020
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