It was somewhat shocking on Thursday when Frank Vogel announced that the Lakers would be keeping the same starting lineup they used in Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers for Game 2 of the series.
The starting group of JaVale McGee, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Danny Green, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had been outscored by 37 points in 54 minutes in Orlando, including digging L.A. a seven-point hole in the first quarter of Game 1. The blame was shared almost universally among those five players, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that at least one of them would be replaced.
Instead, Vogel rode with what got the Lakers the one seed, and for at least one game, it worked. Here’s what stood out from the starting lineup, and from the team as a whole, during the Lakers’ dominant, 111-88 win over Portland.
Anthony Davis was an absolute terror on both ends
Davis did not assert his will in the first game. He settled for too many jumpers, and he was too soft around the basket. His second game couldn’t have been a more polar opposite effort.
The star big man scored 32 points on 13-of-21 shooting and added 11 rebounds and three assists, powering through Portland defenders at will. He backed down Blazers bigs in the post and outmuscled them for offensive rebounds, beat them down the floor in transition, and even showed his perimeter skill on occasion.
Davis was also all over the floor on defense, manning the paint while also covering guards on switches. He was the captain of a stellar team defensive effort, and he had his fingerprints over every aspect of the Lakers’ win.
The Lakers needed Davis to be assertive and efficient, and he delivered on both respects. It’s no accident that L.A. outscored Portland by 32 points in Davis’ minutes.
JaVale McGee brought energy to start
McGee was one of the internet’s favorite scapegoats for the game one loss, and his poor play led to the question of whether the Lakers should even be starting a conventional center, given their offensive struggles. But McGee got the start again, and he had a completely different intensity than in the first game.
It seemed like the coaching staff made a concerted effort to get McGee involved on offense during the first few possessions, as a way to prove not only McGee’s usefulness, but the validity of L.A.’s strategy of staying big.
On the team’s first offensive set, McGee cut to the basket when James was facing up against Carmelo Anthony, and he was rewarded with a dunk.
On the very next possession, McGee rolled to the basket and got a James pocket pass for another lay-up. Even when he mishandled a Green lob attempt later in the first quarter, McGee still managed to salvage the play by kicking out to Caldwell-Pope for a three.
When McGee is an active participant on offense, that tends to result in more effort on the defensive end, and he was simply more attentive there than he has been in recent games. As long as McGee is average on defense, his offensive value justifies his presence on the court, as it did on Thursday.
The Lakers had an average shooting performance
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but this was all the Lakers needed to create even a little bit of separation against the Blazers. We’ve been talking about the team’s shooting ad nauseum, and that’s because it has been historically bad. Seth Partnow of The Athletic noted that the Lakers scored 46 points fewer than expected thanks to the poor shooting in Game 1. Forty-six points. In a game they lost by seven. What a number.
KCP ensured that the Lakers would not have to suffer that same indignity in Game 2. He hit his first 3-point attempt of the game in the fourth minute and followed that up with another three on the next play. The confidence Caldwell-Pope showed on those two jumpers was stunning. He missed all of his nine shots in the first game of the series, yet comfortably stepped into an above-the-break 3-pointer in semi-transition.
Caldwell-Pope is still treated like a good shooter by the defense, and he still believes that he is one. Look at how happy the bench is when he proves it:
Three Lakers hit multiple 3-pointers, though J.R. Smith’s mostly came in garbage time, and Caldwell-Pope hit four 3-pointers in a game for the first time since 2019. The team set a playoff franchise record with 14 total threes, which — in a sign of how long it’s been since the Lakers were in the playoffs — is how many an average team is making in the 2020 postseason.
And that’s the key for the Lakers: being average. They were the 24th-best 3-point shooting team during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass, about three percent worse than league average. But that was still good enough for the sixth-best offense. When the Lakers are defending like they did Thursday, average shooting can give them all the scoring they need to put teams away.
Frank Vogel was flexible with his rotations
Vogel didn’t change the starting lineup, but he did made an adjustment to his normal substitution pattern. Instead of having Alex Caruso or Caldwell-Pope out to start the second quarter (or even Dion Waiters, as was the case during several seeding games), Vogel went with Smith in a jumbo Lakers lineup that included Dwight Howard, James, Markieff Morris, and point Kyle Kuzma. That grouping played exactly even for four minutes, so it wasn’t exactly a success, but it was a sign that Vogel is willing to experiment. He may be more attached to the starting five than some observers are, but he has had a good feel for what buttons to push off the bench all season. It was good to see that again.
The Lakers got exactly what they needed out of this game, a comfortable win that allowed them to feel like themselves again. They’ll need that to continue to take a lead in this series on Saturday.