Preview: Denver Nuggets look to bounce back in Game 2 vs. Lakers
The Denver Nuggets find themselves in a very familiar situation. Once again, Denver has to regroup following a double-digit loss to a Los Angeles-based team in Game 1 of a playoff series.
Last round, a 120-97 loss to the LA Clippers could have been a sign of things to come in that conference semifinals matchup. After all, the media had expected the Clippers to make quick work of Denver. Of course, that wasn’t the case, as the Nuggets fought their way back into the series and eventually pulled off the 3-1 comeback.
This time, Denver may really find itself in serious trouble if it can’t iron out some issues that the Los Angeles Lakers are specially equipped to take advantage of. In their 126-114 victory, the Lakers dominated the second and third quarters, outscoring the Nuggets 67-41 during that stretch.
READ MORE: Game 1 Takeaways
The second quarter was highlighted by the Lakers getting to the free throw line with regularity, which created foul trouble issues for the Nuggets’ top players. Although the free throw attempts were close at the end (28 for Denver and 37 for Los Angeles), 32 of those attempts for the Lakers came in the first half alone.
The Nuggets also struggled to value each possession and matchup defensively in transition, while several key rotation players couldn’t find their stroke throughout Friday’s Game 1.
Here are three storylines to focus on in Game 2.
Take care of the ball
When matching up with a Lakers team that thrives in transition, committing 16 turnovers is part of a recipe for disaster. 16 Nuggets turnovers led to 17 points for Los Angeles, which when coupled with the dominance of LeBron James (15 points, 12 assists) and Anthony Davis (37 points, 10 rebounds) in the halfcourt, made it easy to see how the Lakers led by 27 at one point in the third quarter.
Seven of those turnovers came from Denver’s star duo, as Nikola Jokić (four) and Jamal Murray (three) adjusted to the defensive pressure that Los Angeles put on them, hoping to force Denver’s supporting cast to beat them.
Although the Lakers didn’t trap and double-team Jokić as the Clippers did last round, the Serbian big man struggled to gain separation against the Lakers’ frontcourt, full of athletic, long big men. As a result, Los Angeles was able to stay home on shooters and cutters and be active in the passing lanes.
For Denver to have a chance to even up the series on Sunday, valuing each possession and being able to have more control over the pace of the game will be key.
Defend without fouling
Of course, this is often easier said than done. But when Jokić and Murray enter foul trouble in the first half and are forced to sit for longer than expected, Denver’s offense will suffer mightily.
Looking into the first half numbers paints the picture of where things took a turn for the worst for Denver. The Lakers had 24 attempts from the charity stripe in the second quarter alone. To put things into perspective, the Nuggets have averaged 19.1 free throw attempts per game during these playoffs.
Jokić only played three minutes in that second quarter as a result of his foul trouble, while he picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter as Denver made a final comeback attempt.
The Lakers are a physical team. Davis is a matchup nightmare as a result of his height, length and speed, while LeBron James can initiate contact and still finish around the basket. The Nuggets must be more disciplined in Game 2, especially when avoiding the off-ball fouls that can accumulate and put the Lakers in the bonus early in a quarter.
"I have to go back and watch the film to see what we can do better," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "How do we defend without fouling because we're not going to beat that team by putting them on the line 37 times."
Who will step up for Denver on offense?
As we looked at in our guide to this Western Conference Finals series, this is not a great matchup for Jokić. If the Lakers are able to guard the two-time All-Star without double-teaming regularly, that will allow their off-ball defenders to stay home on shooters, while James will be able to play more of a free safety role on defense and disrupt passing lanes and help over to protect the rim.
As a result, the focus will be on Murray and Denver’s support players to pick up some of the slack, mainly by knocking down open shots and making timely cuts to finish around the rim. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, that simply wasn’t the case in Game 1.
While Murray had 21 points and five assists on an efficient 7-of-12 shooting from the field, the rest of Denver’s key offensive players struggled. Jerami Grant, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. combined for 8-of-27 shooting from the field, including 3-of-16 from beyond the arc.
Porter Jr. couldn’t find his stroke until the fourth quarter when the game was already decided, while Grant and Harris had several clean looks but couldn’t capitalize. The Lakers will continue to focus most of their energy on limiting Jokić and Murray, which will often lead to some open shots for the supporting cast.
Moving forward, those players will have to capitalize on those opportunities in order to give the Nuggets enough offense to compete in this series.
Game 2 will tip at 5:30 p.m. MT on Sunday and will air on TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).