2020 Playoffs | West finals: (1) Lakers vs. (3) Nuggets

Nuggets know transition defense key to squaring series with Lakers

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Rigidity in these playoffs never served as propellant for the Denver Nuggets making NBA history by rallying from consecutive 3-1 series deficits to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

So, in familiar territory once again down 1-0 to the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone quickly identified what hurt his squad most Friday in a 126-114 Game 1 loss.

It was even a primary concern going into the series.

>> Game 2: Sunday, 7:30 ET (TNT)

“I think it’s obvious for anybody that watched the game is just getting back [in transition],” Malone said. “They had 35 transition points. As I told our players this morning when we watched the film, ‘I told you about this. We talked about them being the No. 1 running team in the league. We talked about the pace at which they played with and that is off makes, that’s off misses, that’s off turnovers. That’s off free throws.’ We did a poor job of that. We could’ve taken away so many easy baskets. Give them credit. They get the ball up the floor in a hurry, and they attack.”

LeBron James discussed after losing Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston how the Lakers needed to actually experience the small-ball Rockets’ overall team speed in a game setting to catch a firm grasp for how to combat it.

For Denver, the same applies regarding the Lakers in transition. The Nuggets learned that lesson the hard way after closing the opening quarter Friday on a 16-8 run to take a 2-point lead (38-36) going into the second quarter. Los Angeles quickly reeled off a 17-1 run to start the second quarter, and in just the first 5:35 of that frame, the Lakers outscored Denver 20-3 on 7-for-8 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 from deep, while churning out seven points on seven Nuggets turnovers.

Up 11 to start the third quarter, Los Angeles eventually pumped up the lead to 24 going into the final frame.

Denver owns a record of 1-6 this postseason when it surrenders 110-plus points.

For us to try to even the series up, it’ll have to start and end with that transition.”

— Nuggets coach Michael Malone

“Their ability to convert from defense to offense is remarkable,” Malone said. “A lot of teams say they want to run, but they’re not in shape to do so for 48 minutes. I think the second thing about it is they have a player in LeBron James who could very well be the best passing forward ever to play the game. He’s always looking up the floor. They have bigs that are athletic, [and] put pressure on the rim. They have wings that are disciplined and dedicated to getting out on the break. And the ball is thrown up the floor. They’re used to the advance pass, as opposed to always using the dribble. A lot of people talk about it. They do it.

“It definitely was a concern coming into the series. You can talk about it. You can try to prepare people for it, but once you’re up against it and you really feel it, I think that’s when it takes hold. Hopefully, going into Game 2 our guys understand that and we can be a lot more disciplined, because there were times even when we were back we just didn’t point and talk. And communication would clear up a lot of confusion and take away some of the easy 3s we allowed them to walk into. For us to try to even the series up, it’ll have to start and end with that transition.”

Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. concurred.

“It’s mostly just an awareness we’ve got to have, especially for us guys that crash the offensive glass,” Porter said. “Be selective with that, and just make sure we’re getting back because they’re a great transition team. They hurt us last game with that.”

Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel anticipates Denver working to make the necessary adjustments to handle his team’s transition game, and the Lakers are already devising potential counters.

“After each game, we watch the tape and we come in as we’re watching tape saying, ‘Hey, Game 2, this is probably what Denver’s gonna do,’” Vogel said. “We go through that list so our guys have thought about it, prepared. It’s conversational. It’s something we do talk about in between every playoff game.”

Besides that, the Lakers — winners of five straight playoff games for the first time since 2010, when they captured eight straight — understand the resilience Denver displayed in getting here.

“After watching them beat two great teams back-to-back after being down 3-1, they’re the comeback kids. That’s what we’re gonna keep going by,” Lakers forward Markieff Morris said. “They like to come back. So, we know we ain’t had their best shot yet. It’s still early.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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