The bad news is the Los Angeles Lakers lost two close, winnable games on the road to the Denver Nuggets. The good news is the Lakers now have an opportunity to win the next two games in Los Angeles to even the series.
While the Nuggets have a 2–0 lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Lakers, all they have done is to hold home court advantage by winning their two games in Denver. Now it’s the Lakers’ turn with two home games. Unfortunately, losing two games in a row for the first time in two months will likely have the Lakers questioning their series strategies and schemes, especially since they had a legitimate opportunities to win both games.
The reality facing Los Angeles is they lost the first two games of this series because the Nuggets’ underappreciated superstars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray outplayed Lakers’ superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Jokic averaged an unbelievable 28.5/19.0/13.0 in 28.5 minutes per game while shooting 55.3/50.0/85.7% while Murray averaged 34.0/7.5/5.0 in 39.9 minutes per game while shooting 52.3/45.5/92.3% for the 2 Denver wins.
Meanwhile, James averaged 24.0/10.5/9.5 in 40.0 minutes per game while shooting 51.4/0.0/80.0% while Davis averaged 29.0/12.0/3.5 in 41.4 minutes per game while shooting 47.4/50.0/90.9% during the 2 losses in Denver.
For the 2 games, Jokic and Murray combined for 125 points, 53 rebounds, and 36 assists while James and Davis combined for 106 points, 45 rebounds, and 26 assists, a Nuggets’ edge of 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists.
So while the Nuggets only held home court, the Lakers have some serious issues to fix before they can count on winning their two home games as their defense was shredded by the Nuggets while their offense struggled. While the Lakers did have some success with Hachimura guarding Jokic and Vanderbilt defending Murray, the Nuggets have been ignoring Vando in the corner so their defense would be able to play 5-on-4 against the Lakers.
As the Lakers get ready to defend their 7–0 postseason home record at Crypto.Com Arena tomorrow night, here are the four big questions they need to answer if they’re going to be able to hold home court in L.A.
1. How to Stop Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic?
The one good sign for the Lakers from the two close losses in Denver is the defensive scheme involving Rui Hachimura defending Nikola Jokic to allow Anthony Davis to roam the paint and protect the rim definitely works.
No scheme will shut down the two-time MVP but Hachimura being Jokic’s primary defender with Davis roaming to protect the rim was successful in keeping Nikola from having another historic performance like in Game 1. While the Lakers will try to keep Hachimura on Jokic as much as possible, there will be switches they can’t avoid and it’s likely that Davis and James will also spend time defending the Joker and maybe even Mo Bamba.
Ham needs to start Hachimura and play him starter minutes. The Lakers’ best strategy to stop Nikola Jokic is to have Rui Hachimura be his primary defender so Anthony Davis is free to patrol the paint and protect the rim.
2. How to Stop Nuggets’ Jamal Murray?
The Lakers best option to slow down Denver Nuggets’ superstar point guard Jamal Murray, who single-handedly scored 23 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Lakers in Game 2, is likely to have Jarred Vanderbilt guard him.
That means the Lakers have to find a way to start Jarred Vanderbilt so he can mirror Jamal Murray’s minutes. The only way to do that is for Jarred Vanderbilt to replace D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup for this series. That would mean the Lakers going all-in on defense with a starting lineup of Austin Reaves, Jarred Vanderbilt, LeBron James, Rui Hachimura, and Anthony Davis, which is essentially the Lakers’ version of a ‘Death Lineup.’
The Lakers’ championship hopes and aspirations are based on their ability to play defense. What they learned in Denver is they need to start their best defensive lineup to have their best opportunity to win 2 games in L.A.
3. How to Get LeBron James Going?
Game 2 left no doubt LeBron is not 100%. The fourth quarter was a comedy of errors for James as he fumbled away fastbreak dunks, had no lift when down hill in paint, and settled for hero threes instead of attacking the rim.
There’s little the Lakers can do about James’ foot injury that will likely require surgery this offseason but they can limit James minutes so he’s not totally gassed in the fourth quarter and settling for long hero 3-pointers. Frankly, it’s doubtful that going 0–10 from three in the two games in Denver is going to dissuade LeBron James from letting it fly from deep. With Rui and Reaves spacing the floor, the Lakers need to play LeBron in the post.
James may not have the explosiveness, lift, or 3-point shooting to carry the Lakers by himself but playing him closer to the basket where he can take advantage of his superior strength, power, and experience would be smart.
4. How to Get Anthony Davis Going?
Just when you think Anthony Davis has taken the torch from LeBron James, he has a game like Game 2 in Denver where he posts 18/14/4 but shot a poor 4–15 from the field and ended up with a dismal -10 plus/minus for Game 2.
And just like that, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves down 0–2 to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals with the newly crowned face of the franchise laying an egg in the biggest playoff game of his career. Anthony Davis needs to attack faster, quicker, and more aggressively on offense. Since he’s guarded by Nikola Jokic, the Lakers need him to attack Jokic and get him in foul trouble so he can’t average 42.2 minutes per game.
The Lakers cannot win with Anthony Davis scoring 18 points. They need him to score in the 30’s and get Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in foul trouble. Davis needs a monster bounce-back 35/20/5 Game 2 to help Lakers win.