The Lakers finally won Game 1 of a playoff round, controlling the Nuggets from the second quarter onwards in a 126-114 victory. Here are three takeaways from the first game of the Western Conference Finals.
Welcome back, Dwight Howard.
Dwight Howard played fewer than 16 minutes in the second round of the playoffs: 11 in Game 1, and 4:30 in Game 5 after the outcome was already decided. He hadn’t been a part of a meaningful stretch of basketball in two weeks.
And yet, when Frank Vogel put Howard in the game with ten minutes to play in the second quarter — to match Nikola Jokic’s minutes — there was no sign of rust in Howard’s performance. He was a menace defensively and directed the Lakers’ coverages on that end of the floor. Howard came out high on screen and rolls and still manned the paint, delivering a particularly vicious block on Gary Harris. He was also the only Lakers big to successfully body up Jokic, drawing two offensive fouls on the Denver center and forcing him to sit for the final seven minutes of the half.
Howard’s presence on the floor can sometimes clog up the team’s halfcourt offense, but he made up for that by providing vertical spacing against Jokic. With all due respect to Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo clearly enjoyed having a center who can really get up to throw lobs to. Howard was having a great time as well; he smiled as wide on this alley-oop as he did when he was posing for the sticker dunk.
The Lakers clearly fed off of Howard’s energy, and it was of little surprise that the Lakers kept him on the court to start the second half. The Rockets matchup may not have been for him, but he can play — and impact the game — in this series.
The Lakers were simultaneously too physical and too fast for the Nuggets.
The Lakers got into the paint at will in the first quarter, but it wasn’t until the second when they truly exerted their physicality. They lived at the free-throw line during their game-breaking run in the second quarter, and it wasn’t just because of Howard. LeBron James was too strong for his matchup, and Anthony Davis was a menace on the glass, and each of them were able to consistently bully their way to their spots.
The whole team also constantly put pressure on the basket, forcing the Nuggets to hack them to the tune of 16 second-quarter fouls that led to 24 free throws. The Lakers only shot 14-of-24 from the line in the period, the lone hiccup in an otherwise superlative offensive effort to close the half.
The Lakers were able to use their athleticism against Denver not just in the half court, but also on the break. They ran fastidiously against the Nuggets, off of makes and misses with equal vigor. L.A. was only credited with 16 fast-break points, but more importantly, the Lakers kept the pace fast. The Nuggets want to be methodical and have within 90-95 possessions per game, but the Lakers played at a pace of 98.5. It was 105.0 in the first half when the Lakers first created separation.
Davis really is the embodiment of both of these styles of play, as he succeeded with both his strength and finesse. That’s why he led both teams with 37 points and 10 rebounds. He was seemingly unstoppable no matter what Denver threw at him.
The Alex Caruso and LeBron James partnership continues to thrive.
Earlier today, The Wall Street Journal called Caruso “The LeBron James of playing with LeBron James”. Essentially, no one has been better at playing next to James — not in his entire career — than Caruso. In Game 1, that two-man partnership, in combination with an excellent showing from Howard, was responsible for the Lakers dialing up their defense and getting going in transition.
James and Caruso got in for their first extended stretch with the Lakers up 28-26. By the time Caruso headed to the bench, that lead had grown to 57-43.
On their first possession of the second quarter, Caruso and James ran a pick-and-roll that got Caruso an easy path to the bucket for an and-one as the defenders spent too much time looking at James. They ran another screen-and-roll two possessions later, and when Caruso got two sets of eyes on him, he delivered a pocket pass to James for a dunk. In case that dunk didn’t get the Lakers bench hyped enough, Caruso and James ran a fast break a couple minutes later that led to a thunderous James slam. All of those fireworks came in addition to Caruso’s steady defense on the other end.
The Lakers had better pairings in this game, but the consistency of this particular duo has been important for the Lakers in the playoffs so far. James and Caruso feast against bench-heavy units to start the second and fourth quarters, and they often deliver a much-needed jolt to the team, as they did Friday.
The Nuggets will adjust, as they have in the previous two series, but there was a lot to like for the Lakers in the opening salvo. After a dramatically different second-round series stylistically, the Lakers are demonstrating that they can win in a multitude of ways.