Preview: Denver Nuggets look to keep season alive in Game 5 vs. Lakers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Here we are again.

There’s just something about the Denver Nuggets and 3-1 series deficits. Following a hard-fought 114-108 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, Denver will once again have to fight to keep its season alive in Saturday’s Game 5.

READ MORE: Game 4 takeaways

Despite brilliant shotmaking from Jamal Murray in Game 4, Denver struggled mightily on the boards and couldn’t receive enough from the supporting cast to survive impressive performances from LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Murray ultimately finished with 32 points and eight assists on 12-of-20 shooting from the field in his 45 minutes of action. However, that wasn’t enough for a Nuggets team that didn’t have another player score more than 17 points. Nikola Jokić had an off-game by his lofty standards, finishing with just 16 points and seven rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting.

James and Davis combined for 60 points in the victory that pushed Los Angeles to the brink of a Finals appearance for the first time since 2010. The Lakers also received key contributions from Dwight Howard (12 points and 11 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (11 points and seven assists).

The Nuggets have been here before and have adopted a “never say die” mentality more than any team in NBA history, having already completed two 3-1 comebacks during this improbable playoff run.

Here are the keys to prolonging the season in Game 5.

Denver must be better on the boards

There are few things that stand out more than the rebounding disadvantage the Nuggets dealt with in Game 4, especially on the offensive glass.

Ultimately, Los Angeles outrebounded Denver 41-33, but it was the 12-6 advantage on the offensive glass that made the difference. The Lakers’ 12 offensive rebounds led to 25 second-chance points, which dwarfed Denver’s six second-chance points.

It’s going to be difficult to beat an elite team like the Lakers when you allow them to post a 39.1 percent offensive rebound percentage, which ranked in the 99th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

"As a team we definitely like we lost [the game] on the boards," Michael Porter Jr. said. "That was a big area that really hurt us tonight."

With the game coming down to the final minutes, three key offensive rebounds allowed the Lakers to run more time off the clock, get second-chance opportunities and in some cases, get to the free-throw line for easy points.

Howard was the main culprit on the offensive glass for Los Angeles, finishing with six offensive rebounds in just 23 minutes of action. In fact, four of those offensive rebounds came in the first quarter alone as Los Angeles took control of the game early on.

For the Nuggets, allowing the Lakers to dominate on the offensive glass is a recipe for disaster, especially considering the Lakers’ offensive struggles in the halfcourt. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, Los Angeles posted a 98.8 offensive rating in the halfcourt in Game 4, which ranks in the 49th percentile.

Finishing those possessions with defensive rebounds is a necessity for the Nuggets, who now face another steep climb in hopes of keeping the season alive.

Supporting Murray on the offensive end

Although it came in a losing effort, Murray’s performance in Game 4 will be remembered for a long time.

There was the Michael Jordan-like layup late in the second quarter, a sweet behind-the-back dribble in transition to get by Danny Green for a layup in the second half, or the consistent finishes through or around contact that led to Murray’s 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting from inside the arc.

"He's gotten the best [defender] of everybody [we've faced]," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said following the Game 4 loss. "That's the ultimate sign of respect."

However, that wasn’t enough for Denver, as Jerami Grant was the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points. For the Nuggets to extend the series past Game 5, the team will need to get Murray loose for more 3-point attempts (the 23-year-old only attempted three shots from beyond the arc in 45 minutes on Thursday) and get more from the other key players, especially Jokić.

It’s all hands on deck in Game 5 with the season on the line, so finding different ways to diversify the offense to get Jokić going early will open things up for the supporting players throughout the game, whether that be through cuts or open shots from beyond the arc.

Stay out of foul trouble

It sounds simple, but avoiding unnecessary fouls is crucial for the Nuggets in Game 5, especially for the team’s leading players. Jokić and Paul Millsap were in foul trouble early in Game 4, which ultimately reduced their playing time and ability to find a rhythm later in the game.

Both players finished with five fouls, but Millsap only played 17 minutes, while Jokić’s 36 minutes were the least he has played since the Game 1 blowout loss. Jerami Grant (four) and Torrey Craig (five) were also in trouble in Game 4.

As a result of all the fouls (Denver committed 28 in total), the Lakers went to the free-throw line 35 times, converting 28 of those attempts. This allowed Los Angeles to post a 35.4 free throw rate, which ranked in the 95th percentile.

Given the Lakers’ offensive struggles in halfcourt situations throughout this season and in this series, allowing them to dominate on the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line is the exact recipe to fall short in a game, which is exactly what happened in Game 4.

Look for Malone to ride with his best players in Game 5 if they do get in foul trouble. With the season on the line, there will be no holding back in that aspect of the game.

Game 5 will tip at 7 p.m. MT Saturday and will air on TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).

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